David Graeber: “DEBT: The First 5,000 Years” | Talks at Google

By | January 24, 2020

>>Male Presenter: Welcome everybody on behalf
of [email protected] to another [email protected] talk. Today’s guest David Graeber, his new
book DEBT: The First 5,000 Years of it. Please welcome David Graeber. [applause]>>David Graeber: Thank you, thanks so much
for having me here. I guess I wanted to talk a little bit about
how I came to write the book. It’s an odd book, in a way, because it starts from trying
to grapple with kind of a moral and political problem. Just what is this hold that the idea
of debt has over people’s imaginations, that morality itself comes to be thought of as
a matter of paying one’s debts? I guess I was first really confronted with
it, started to conceive the notion of writing this book when I was, for some reason or another,
I was at a garden party at Westminster Abbey and won’t go into how I got there, but it
was a curious experience. The priest was a very nice man named Father Graeme was sort
of introducing me to everyone there but he had this very annoying way of doing it, he
would sort of bring me up to people and say, “Hello I’d like you to meet David Graeber.
He’s an anarchist,” [chuckles] which kind of limited conversations — [laughter] possibilities a lot. But after a while he
introduced me to this person who he said was I’d have a lot in common with, activist lawyer
who’s involved in a lot of community work and various things like that. So I chatted
with her and she was talking about her activism and asked me about mine and I was talking
about campaigns that I’d been involved with, involved in the Global Justice Movement for
many years, about the IMF Structural Adjustment Policies and our effects on various parts
of the world. I had spent two years in Madagascar and Madagascar
had undergone all sorts of IMF structural adjustment over the years with various confusing
effects; some of them were actually kind of ironically quite good like the state basically
sort of pulled up stakes and left large parts of the countryside because they figure they
weren’t getting any taxes out of the countryside anyway and people sort of managing their own
affairs completely autonomously and that was cool. But they also did things like withdraw support
for mosquito eradication programs, the idea being IMF would set the terms for debt rescheduling
and demand various budget cuts. In this case, there was a program that had been put in 50
years before to wipe out malaria in the highlands which had been very successful, people had
all lost their immunity but they couldn’t afford to keep it up anymore when they had
to cut the budget. And as a result — [pause] I believe, 15,000 people died, 10 or 15 depending
on the accounts because the epidemic came back, everyone had lost their immunity. At
least 5,000 of those were children and this had happened right before I came to Madagascar.
A lot of people were naturally quite devastated by the experience. And I was telling this story and she was very
sympathetic and she said, “Well, yes, but what were, as an activist what were you proposing
to do about this? And I said, “Well we were involved in the Drop the Debt campaign this
thing called Jubilee 2000,’ I said the debt of the global south should be forgiven. Her
reaction was — [pause] somewhat shocked and mortified. She was like,
“Well, they borrowed the money, I mean, surely people have to pay their debts.” There was
something about the way it was just so commonsensical and as an activist your first reaction when
you say this you say, “Uh-oh, that conversation, alright. And I thought this was a friend.
Okay, wait, which one do I do? There’s like 12 different responses you can do. Do I say,
“Well they didn’t really borrow the money, some dictator who put it in a Swiss bank account.”
Do you say, “Well, actually, they paid the money about 20 times over at this point just
through the miracle of compounded interest; they’ll never get out.” There’s a million
different responses. Actually, the response I think I came up with,
what would be most effective in that context was the economical one which is if profits
are your reward for taking risk, well, you’re supposed to be taking a risk. So I mean the
whole point of a financial system is to guide money towards wise investments and if you
have a system like the IMF imposed on most of the world where you’re going to get paid
back no matter what you do, there’s absolutely no incentive to make intelligent loans. But what really struck me was that sort of
commonsensical like, “You have to pay your debts.” I mean, I thought, “Well, this is
a very nice person she just heard a story which involved 7,000 dead babies how, what
other circumstance would she try to justify killing 7,000 babies?” Probably none. So
what is it about the idea of debt that it can justify things in peoples’ minds that
you’d almost never – [pause] imagine defending otherwise? And it set me off and I started thinking about
debt itself; the history of debt, what is debt, where does it come from, how long have
we been thinking in these terms, how long has it had this moral power? And I quickly,
when I started doing the initial research, discovered a number of rather surprising things.
One of them was that no one has ever written the history of debt which is kind of shocking
because really there aren’t that many things that no one’s ever written a history of. Think about it, people have written histories
of salt, people have written histories of different types of fish. There’s a French
historian who wrote a history of shit, it’s actually in a — [laughter] human waste disposal over the years. [laughs]
Pretty much anything you can think of there is a guy who’s written a history of that. How is it that no one’s ever written a history
of debt? And people have written lots of histories of money, but the histories of money almost
invariably turn out when you look at it to be histories of coinage which itself is interesting
when you consider that most transactions over world history have been credit transactions.
And you can find histories of credit but it’s not exactly the same thing. So here’s this thing which pervades every
aspect of our lives. Modern nations run on deficit financing; consumer economies run
on debt; international relationships are all about debt. Yet no one’s quite sure what it
is and no one has written a history of the phenomena. So I started to work and one of the first
things I found was that most of our sort of basic common sense reigning assumptions about
this are completely wrong. The other thing I found out is that this moral ambivalence,
which was interesting, that sort of commonsensical but of course you have to pay your debt and
then the argument but actually really no that doesn’t make sense. That conversation has
been happening for about 5,000 years itself. Throughout the history of debt, conversations
like that keep happening. It seems that there’s almost no time and place where you can’t find
people, on the one hand, treating the payment of debts as simple morality or even treating
simple morality as the paying of debts. [pause] But at the same time, then concluding there’s
something very wrong with this and they need to imagine some other way to think of it but
it not being clear what that is. [pause] I could multiply examples endlessly but one
or two will just give you the idea: Plato’s Republic. Plato’s Republic begins, “What is
justice?” It’s the founding work of Western political philosophy, right? And from wealthy arms manufacturer, Kefalos,
who’s name actually means capital. He says, “That’s simple just pay your debts and don’t
lie,” and that’s justice. Socrates blows that one out of the water right away, of course,
he says, “Well, okay, some guy lends me his sword and then he goes violently insane and
wants it back to kill people. Like, do I give it back? Of course not and probably I’ll make
up some lie as to why I can’t.” So they start with that and so right well
right not that something else, maybe I mean it metaphorically. And the rest of the book
is basically the okay not that maybe something else then. But that — [pause] it’s debt right and no actually it’s not. [laughter] [chuckles] That shows up over and over and
over again. In a way all the world religions start that way too. You have the Brahmans,
sort of first grade theological text of Hinduism after the Rig Veda, they’re discussing debt
and debt and sin are actually the same, debt and guilt and sin are really the same word
in the Sanskrit. So they start with this idea of cosmic debt: what is life, life is a debt
we owe to the gods. So we owe our lives to the gods, we pay interest in the form of animal
sacrifice and other rituals and then gradually we pay the principal back when we die. So they pose this as this sort of, human existence
itself is a debt, all morality is debt. And when they, but as soon as they start extending
it, it becomes clear that that’s not really what they mean because they say, “Well you
also have a existential debt not only to the gods and to the cosmos but you have an existential
debt to your parents. How do you pay them back? You become a parent. You owe a debt
to the sages who created wisdom like you’re reading now. How do you pay that back? You
become a sage; you learn things. You owe a debt to humanity as a whole for making your
life possible. How do you pay back that, you’re hospitable to strangers. But in every case what you’re doing is you
are undermining the basis for saying there even is a debt, you’re not paying it back
’cause after all, as in the example of parents, somebody lends you money and you give the
money to someone else, you’re not actually paying it back. But what you are doing is
you owe a debt to your parents and then you become a parent so your annihilating the difference.
You owe a debt to the sages you become a sage; you owe a debt to humanity you become humane. [pause] Could that apply to the cosmos? Well, yes,
according to most Hindu scripture that’s exactly what’s happening because you are the cosmos.
And if you think about it the idea that you owe a debt to the cosmos, and this crops up
again and again, debt to nature, debt to society, debt to these huge institutions larger than
yourself, is kind of absurd because a debt is a business transaction. And a business
transaction is by definition an arrangement between two legally equivalent entities; they
make a deal. Now how would you enter into a business transaction
with the entire universe, everything that is or has ever been including yourself? You
kinda make a deal with them. Well, it’s absurd. The only way to actually sort of undo the
debt is what they’re saying you realize and rituals if you’re doing them right is that
you are the cosmos, there is no difference. So there’s no basis to say there’s a debt
at all. So again it’s the same thing: you start morality
is just debt, everything is a debt but they say it in such a way that once you figure
out what they’re really saying, they’re really saying, “No, actually it’s not; debt is absurd.” Same thing happens in the Bible. In Aramaic
– [pause] the word for debt and sin is also the same
word. Actually the Lord’s Prayer which we always remember through the Anglican translation
which is, “Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us,”
sort of translated into this odd private property terms. But the original Aramaic and the original
John Wycliffe translation is debt. “Forgive us our debts just as we forgive those who
owe us money.” But, of course, there’s kind of a message there right because we don’t
actually forgive those who owe us money generally speaking. So in a way it’s a way of saying
like you are a sinner, [chuckles] you don’t deserve anything, but, in fact, grace will
come and [chuckles] you’ll be forgiven. But so what is sacred isn’t actually paying
debts it’s forgiveness of debts which was a tradition going back to ancient Mesopotamia
and debt forgiveness and the biblical to believe which is adopted from that where periodically
debts are canceled. And that is a divine act. So what’s divine is not paying debts, what’s
divine is forgiving debts; cancellation. So over and over you have that same situation
where people start with an assumption that morality and debt are the same and they, immediately,
say except really they aren’t and sort of cast around for some other basis on which
to think of a universal morality, often having a great deal of difficulty in doing so. It’s even more complicated because when you
do think of debt as sin — [pause] there’s a question of who is the sinner. This
crops up over and over again, too, just about everywhere. The person who borrows the money
has probably done something wrong, especially if they haven’t paid it right away; the person
who lent is not doing much better. In fact one thing that happens over and over again
in so many different traditions is you find that borrowing money or — [pause] they frame morality as the obligation of the
borrower to pay it back. So obligation and debt are considered the same thing; morality
is just doing your obligations as paying your debts. On the other hand in almost every one of those
traditions, money lenders are assumed to be evil. Well, it’s kinda hard to square those.
And sometimes in the same text they’ll just be sort of jockeying back and forth trying
to figure out who’s the bad guy. There’s a great Buddhist story from medieval
Japan I use in the first chapter because just brings it home some clearly, it’s kind of
a case of premature reincarnation. There is a Buddhist monk telling this story
about some book about strange events in Japan in my day, which is maybe like 700 A.D. There’s
some woman who’s wife of the governor is notorious local loan shark and she terrorizes people
and is always chasing them down and were fleeing the province in droves from her depredation.
And she dies and after three days of saying prayer over the body something horror happened,
the coffin opens and she jumps out but she’s half an ox and this horrible monster sort
of lingers for a few days and the family panics and is trying to give back all the money that
they’d extracted from people hoping she’ll just mercifully die and the whole episode
will be over, which eventually she does. But the monk is reflecting on this and he
says, “Well, you know it says in the Sutras that if you owe somebody money and you don’t
pay, well, now this is bad because you’re in mortal danger you could be reborn as an
ox in their barn.” It’s what happens to debtors a lot. But he says, “I guess, well, if somebody
owes you money and you’re really giving them a hard time then you could get reborn an ox
in their barn.” And that must be what was about to happen to her but she was so bad
it wasn’t even clear who’s ox she was gonna be born in so she kind of turned into this
monster. I thought about this and I thought, well,
yeah, a perfect example like because nobody’s, you’re not gonna be shakin’ somebody down
unless they didn’t pay. But if they didn’t pay then they’re in danger of being born an
ox in your barn. So, like, who’s gonna get, you can’t both get born an ox in the other
guy’s barn. [chuckles] Somebody’s gotta be worse so who decides? There’s some sort of
Karmic balance, its touch and go, either one could actually end up an ox. And I think that [chuckles] really brings
home the problem you always have in debt: one party is in moral peril definitely, the
other one probably. And when you imagine all human relations as
exchange, that’s what crops up. [pause] There’s a terrible ambivalence there for about
the very nature of human sociality. Yet sometimes people do it in a positive way. I should point
out that one of the points I make in the book is that human relations are not all exchange,
there are many different moral registers in which we interact with one another and exchange
is just one. But when you have exchange, exchange is a
relationship between two equal partners where they, based on reciprocity, they should actually
give each other an equivalent, maybe on the spot, maybe over time. If the transaction
is not complete, there’s a debt, but once it is complete they’re equal once again and
they walk away. But the curious thing about that is it means
that you only – [pause] if you’re working on the level of exchange,
then you only have relationships with one another when the exchange is incomplete in
which case one party is definitely to blame because they haven’t paid back what they owe,
the other one might well be. It implies that sociality itself, human relations only exist
when somebody’s done something wrong. If you have deeply commercial philosophies of life
often that’s the conclusion. Other places debt becomes good, it becomes
the basis of sociality. It’s very, very common in a lot of places — it’s a great story always
like sort of brings us home about these people called the Tiv who live in Central Nigeria
and this anthropologist named Laura Bohannan who wrote up of her experiences when she first
did field work there. So she shows up, gets a house, doesn’t really
know the language very well. People immediately start appearing with gifts and somebody’ll
bring a little basket of okra, somebody’ll bring some fish, some grain, potatoes, and
she doesn’t know what to do, of course, she’s an anthropologist, she gets out her little
notebook and writes everything down; her living room gradually filling up with baskets and
various types of goods. And eventually someone takes pity on her and
says, “Okay, look this is the deal. Those are gifts but you have to give people something
back. Figure out what they’re worth, but the key is you can’t give them back something
of the exact same value of what they just gave you. So that okra’s worth three shillings.
Give them something worth two shillings or give them something worth four shillings.
Never give them something worth three shillings because if you do you’re saying, “I don’t
want to have anything more to do with you.'” So people have to be in each others’ debt
just a little bit and that way you always have an excuse to like, “Oh, by the way, I
still owe you a shilling.” So everybody has an excuse to see each other. So in a way, sociality is dead, everybody
has to be just a little bit in debt to everybody else. And if you look at the way communities
work over the course of history where they do have money very often that’s what’s like
being a neighborhood means. Everybody’s a little bit in debt to everybody else. Medieval England, I think somebody calculated
that 97 percent of all transactions in a typical English village, and this is true through
to at least the 1700’s, were by credit. Partly there just isn’t a lot of money floating around,
partly people don’t like to use it with neighbors. As we’ll see actual physical money is associated
with war, violence, soldiers, people you really don’t wanna hang out with, criminals. People,
nice people operate on credit and trust. So everybody’s doing these credit transactions
and everybody’s keeping track in their heads, “Oh, I owe him five shillings, he owes him
three,” and every six months to a year they have what they call communal reckoning. So,
everybody sits down in a big circle and they say, “Alright I owe you seven shillings, he
owes him seven shillings, he owes him, he owes me, okay big circle we can cancel that
one out.” And they just do a bunch of loops and they gradually whittle it down until they
figure out there’s about three shillings left over between this guy and that guy, what is
actually owed, and then somebody gives somebody a pig — [laughter] some cheese [chuckles] whatever it might be
and they settle it and go back to zero again and start. And that’s community, community
means everybody owes everybody something else, everybody remembers what they owe and eventually
they all settle it and start over again. Now, so in that sense, debt isn’t a terrible
thing. But there’s always that shadow, like sin, floating over it. [pause] And there’s that terrible ambivalence, that
way of saying one party’s guilty and the other one might be. Where does that come from? And — [pause] when I began explaining this one of the first
things I looked at was the history of money itself. Because, we have to say, okay, what
is a debt? A debt is essentially a promise which you can phrase in exactly quantifiable
terms, because you can quantify it it’s impersonal, if I, because it’s impersonal, it’s transferable. So if I promise you that I will meet you at
five o’clock, you can’t actually transfer that to someone else normally speaking, I
guess, in some circumstances you could. But a promise which is quantifiable, “I promise
to give you exactly this amount of things,” you actually can turn over to someone else
and in way, according to many theories, that’s money actually is is a transferable promise
to render a certain amount of goods. [pause] One of the great questions is how that comes
about, why the need to quantify promises happens or quantify them precisely. And we’ve had
a story about why this happens, that you’re readin’ your basic Economic 101 textbook actually
invented by Adam Smith in 1776, The Wealth of Nations, is the first time you see someone
really making the argument in detail. [coughs] And it continues to be the story that everybody
knows and learns and they pick up somewhere or another, that becomes common sense, it’s,
and if you’re, as an anthropologist, I must say, that I have a kind of a pet peeve in
this respect because, well it’s a professional pet peeve on the part of anthropologists,
because this story was told over 200 years ago — [pause] almost immediately, we started going out in
the world trying to find examples of people who do it and we couldn’t. It’s not true.
[laughs] But they never changed the textbooks. We just can’t get them to come up with a different
story. But alright here’s the story, you’ve all heard
it before. Once upon a time people lived in villages and they used to swap things, there
was barter. Say I wanted somebody’s cow; well, I said, “Alright hey I need a cow, tell you
what I’ll give you 30 chickens for that cow.” And the guy’s like, “Well, I don’t know, 30’s
not much, 40 chickens, 45, alright sold.” So you come to some sort of arrangement, swap,
go home. But the problem is maybe the guy doesn’t want chickens, maybe you don’t happen
to have anything he wants right now. What happens? Well, you can’t make a deal, right? So the only way out of this problem, as it
crops up more and more over time, is to settle on something that everybody usually wants,
like gold for some reason; shiny metal but it’s kind of handy and it’s pretty. And there’s
a virtuous circle the moment you start using it as a general equivalent, everybody needs
it all the time, it turns into money. So barter’s inconvenient, you get money, government
gets involved and starts stamping the stuff, through uniform weights and quality, although
it started cheating all the time and debasing the currency because governments are bad in
this version. Gradually, you invent credit systems and it’s
an evolutionary series: barter, money, credit, securitized derivatives of whatnot are just
sort of the last link of the chain, it follows logically. Alright, so that’s the story. As I say there’s one big problem we’ve been
scouring the world for over 200 years now and we have never found a single community
where everyday transactions take the form of “I’ll give you 40 chickens for that cow.”
They don’t exist. And Adam Smith himself had no way to know
this he was just speculating, but now we do and they keep on telling this story. I mean
if you look at contemporary economic textbooks, the old ones used to say, “Well primitive
people do this,” and now that they kinda know it’s not true they don’t wanna stop so instead
they say, “Well imagine you didn’t have money what would you have to do? How would you get
breakfast? Well you’d have to barter wouldn’t you?” And they tell this story as a kind of
parable which is basically what it is. There’s an obvious reason, if you think about
it, there’s obviously problem with this story, why it wouldn’t happen, which is you’re taking
a Neolithic village here a bunch of people who are neighbors and you are assuming that
they will only deal with each other with what economists like to call the spot trade.
“Here, I’m gonna give you this, you’re gonna give me that,” we walk away. But, of course, why would they do that right?
I mean, they’re neighbors. If the guy doesn’t want my chickens he knows I’m gonna have something
he wants because I’m his neighbor, in fact, it’s rather nice to have your neighbor in
your debt, it’s useful for all sorts of things. So even if you take this imaginary scenario
here these two guys in a Neolithic village, one wants a cow, what would really happen?
Well, in fact in many human societies it is the case that if you praise somebody else’s
possession it’s almost impossible not to give it to the person who praises it. This is another
one of those things which has a very, very strange moral power; so much so that you really
can’t break out of it. I mean there’s a great story I always tell
from New Zealand, a Maori story about a guy named Te Ringa who is a sort of a notorious
glutton. He rarely did much fishing himself, everybody else in the neighborhood was a fisherman,
he would sort of walk up and down the beach lookin’ for people coming back from fishing
and check out their catch and say, “Oh looky that’s squid, oh I love squid, that’s my favorite.”
Or, “Wow that’s a beautiful fish,” and they would be like, “Okay, here’s a fish, okay,
here’s a squid.” So [chuckles] they just have to give it to him. After about two years of
this people got fed up so they formed a war party and they killed him. [chuckles] [laughter] It was actually easier to just bash the guy’s
head in than to say, “No, I’m not gonna give you the fish.” So, such is the moral power
of some customs. At any rate, so here you have so if you praise
someone’s, I have a friend from Lebanon where she grew up it was the same thing somebody
praises your scarf or piece of jewelry you just have to say, “Take it.” There’s only
one way out actually which is to say, “Oh you like, it was a gift.” [laughs] [laughter] At any rate, so alright here you have this
situation so I wanna cow, I go up I say, “Wow that is one magnificent cow, that’s a really
beautiful cow you got there.” So the guy there’s only one thing he can do he says, “Oh, you
want the cow, well, please take the cow it’s a really stupid cow but if you like it you
should really have it. No, no don’t even think about giving anything back, it’s a gift of
course, we’re neighbors, we love each other just take the cow.” Now, he owes you one.
[chuckles] [laughter] And everybody knows that, nobody’ll say it.
But what does he owe? He owes you something roughly like a cow. And that’s what you get
in communities like this you get this sort of rank type system of types of things. So
a cow, a canoe, a very nice necklace are roughly the same, or you could give one back for the
other. Or it’s not necessarily bad because you could
give something back to him or he could just show up because you owe him one and he could
just say, “Well, wow, that’s a beautiful necklace you have.” Or he could say, “You know,
my son is deeply in love with your daughter.” It could be a lot of things, doesn’t necessarily
a material good, “I really need help with something”. So, but you have this sort of quantified rank
system. And there’s all sorts of ways you can head it off. You can play games you could
like say, “Oh, I hate owing that guy a cow, I know, I just got a whole bunch of yams,
I’ll give them to him. I’ll be off the hook,” and he’ll be like, “Oh, yams; great, thanks.”
[chuckles] [laughter] But so he might mock you as a cheapskate which
is a devastating thing in a small community. But here’s the thing, he’s very unlikely to
come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap he thinks you were, right? And that’s
the problem: how do you get from like a cow is roughly like this to 27 yams equals one
cow but not three, how many chickens equals a cow. In the barter story there’s a mechanism
but if there’s this sort of rough credit system is what you’d actually have and what you actually
do observe in places about money, well, how does that turn into something where you can
figure out exact proportional equivalents? The answer to that seems to be when somebody’s
very angry. Now when people are being nice to each other there’s really no need to calculate
but occasionally it will happen that people, violence ensues. Say I am mocking someone
for giving me these yams and he’s drunk, I’m drunk, violence ensues, somebody’s ear gets
cut off. Well then there’s numbers. Very often it is the case that even in places
where you don’t have markets for goods, you do have incredibly elaborate series of fines
and penalties for damaged limbs, if you lose a finger it’s worth this much, if you lose
a thumb it’s worth that much, if you lose an eye, if you have a gash like this large
and they’ll measure the gash, and how many chickens or heifers or silver plates or whatever
it might be. What they call the Barbarian Law Code, seemed
like every society in early medieval Europe wrote up a schedule of fines like this and
some of them are incredibly detailed. The early Welsh and Irish ones are especially
interesting because we know they didn’t have markets, you couldn’t buy or sell things,
most things. But they did have prices on everything. In fact, they specified the exact value of
every single object likely to be found in a person’s house, ranging from the silverware
to the roof beams, everything, the curtains. Why? Because you will end up in a situation
often where the law says you owe me 27 heifers or this means war, swords are pulled, people
are not willing to compromise, you killed my brothers, you insulted my mother, whatever
it might be. You need to pay penalties and you don’t have heifers. Well, then you actually
need to figure out exactly what’s equivalent to what. So in those circumstances and in legal situations,
particularly where there’s a danger of a feud or outbreak of violence, in fact people do
need to quantify and it seems like that’s the first circumstance where you have something
like money emerging. That association then of money and violence
is a constant, and it helps to explain a lot about why debt, particular tends to take on
this incredibly powerful moral hold. One way I like to put it is that if you are in a situation
of inequality – [pause] of violent inequality. Probably the more effective
technique ever invented to make, not only make that seem moral but to make it seems
like victim is to blame, is to frame it in the language of debt. Mafiosi understand this
perfectly well, right? But sort of heads of conquering armies, you come in you say, “Alright,
I’ve just conquered you guys,” and it’s actually important to bear in mind here that there’s
a famous line from Benjamin Franklin, “There’s nothing certain in life but death and taxes.”
That’s not actually true, it’s only death. In many societies they did ancient Sumer communities
didn’t tax themselves, taxes were just placed on conquered populations. The same was true
in Athens, in fact, they had negative taxes in Athens, the government gave you money,
you were paid to vote, just gave periodic handouts from government resources, Rome had
bread and circuses. So citizens didn’t actually have to pay taxes, taxes was tribute placed
on people who’d been conquered. But the general excuse was debt, “You owe me your lives. Why
do you owe me your lives because I coulda killed you and I didn’t so — [pause] of course, I expect payment for this, compensation.
I’m a nice guy; I’m gonna let you off the hook for six months and if you’re in trouble
we can negotiate something but I do expect payment.” Voila, you’ve turned a relationship of violent
inequality into a relation where the victims are running around feeling inadequate all
the time, making terrible apologies for themselves and you get to be the magnanimous nice guy.
It happens over and over again in world history and it’s very, very effective. The problem
is it tends to blow up in your face because from the prospective of power there’s that
little worm in the bud which is this is you’re translating things into the language of the
business deal which implies that you should be equal, you are equal on some level if you
owe a debt to someone, there’s a contract here, but one party has failed to live up
to their end of the contract. [pause] Now if you think about it there’s a real explosive
potential there and if you look at world history, in fact, the vast majority of rebellions,
revolutions, insurrections, peasant revolts that you see are not about the kind of thing
you’d probably think it would be. They’re not about slavery, I mean, slave revolts happen
but they’re pretty rare, they’re not about caste systems, they’re not about serfdom,
absolute declared systems of inequality. They’re always about debt. Moses Finley, the great classicist once said
that there was basically one revolutionary program throughout antiquity: just cancel
the debts and redistribute the land; in that order. When peasants, like, take over a town the
first thing they do is they find the debt records and burn them. After that they go
after the land registers and maybe the tax documents. And this remains true throughout history.
I mean, I was actually going through just recently some of the writings of John Adams
and others of the founding fathers, their reflections on democracy, which, of course,
they were totally against; those guys hated democracy. And John Adams has this quote saying, “Well
we can’t have majority vote. If we had majority vote then we’d have two million people with
property, nine million people without property, you know what’s gonna happen? The moment we
allow everybody to vote first thing that’s gonna happen is they’ll cancel the debts,
after that they’ll redistribute the land.” [laughter] It’s just common sense. So this is the program and why debt, why does
debt mobilize people in this way? Because it implies that you’re equal. So if you say
you are inferior, you’re a peasant, you’re a serf, I’m a lord, well, it’s not gonna make
people very happy but you can live with that. But if you say, “Well, you’re supposed to
be my equal but you messed up. You are morally inadequate.” Well, it’s kind of hard not to
take that and say, “Now wait a minute if we’re equal like why are you saying I messed up?
I mean who owes what to who here really?” And that is, of course, what people have said
for the last 5,000 years when confronted with that almost invariably the response is who
owes what to who. But once you do that, you’re using the language
of debt, right? You are saying that debt is morality, you’re saying, “Well, wait a minute
we make your food. In terms of any reasonably morality, I’m the guy, you should be owing
me rather than me owing you.” But suddenly the language of debt does become
all pervasive ’cause you have to use the master’s language. And I think that’s what we’re dealing
with with all this religious text, with all this philosophical text which start by saying
debt is just morality and then say except actually it’s not. You’re stuck with the language
of debt as a way of arguing about politics. We don’t know if this is 2000 D.C. in Mesopotamia
and two guys are sitting around the tavern arguing about politics what kind of phrases
and language they’re using. But we can be pretty certain that debt is a big one in there.
And we can also be pretty certain that when we’re reading all these great religious texts
that language of ordinary, everyday, political argument is in there. The thing is we don’t
have this anymore so we’re probably reading all these sort of Mesopotamian equivalent
of “it’s the economy stupid” or all these various catch phrases that everybody knew
at the time that we just don’t know anymore. So they’re just throwing them around in this
lodge and this is why all this moral language becomes this financial language and you talk
about redemption and reckoning, and so forth and debt and sin and so forth and so on. So you’re stuck with this language of debt
except it periodically blows up. Next, when I started looking the broad sweep
of history I thought, “Well, you can look at social movements and organization of society
in those terms and perhaps one of the most revealing ways of doing that is looking at
the history of money itself.” Remember we have this paradigm: first there is barter,
then there’s money, then comes credit, and that’s wrong. Not only it is wrong, it’s actually
backwards; credit comes first. Somehow or other, by the time the sort of
curtain comes up around 3500 B.C., in Mesopotamia you already have very elaborate credit systems.
Actually the very first document we have which talks about interest rates is a political
document by a King [inaudible ] I believe his name is, a Sumerian King who’s complaining
about his neighbors like occupying a stretch of territory which is rightfully his and he
says, “Well you know, they’ve been occupying this land for 20 years. If we calculate the
rent we would have charged them had they been renting this same land and then add a compounded
interest rate, I calculate that they would actually owe us 13 trillion shekels or whatever,
[chuckles] some insanely sum that no one could possibly pay. Obviously this means war. [chuckles] So you’ve already got compounded
interest rates and so forth going on in the very, very first records that we have people
have expense accounts, bar tabs. It seems like almost all everyday transactions are
on credit. And the evidence for that is scales, because they were denominating debts in silver
but they didn’t actually make scales accurate enough to weigh out the tiny amounts of silver
that would have been required to buy like a shirt or a hammer or something like that
in the marketplace. I mean, they had the technology to do so they just didn’t bother. So clearly,
people weren’t actually using silver to buy this stuff they were running up a tab. Alright, so you’ve got the Sumerian situation,
but the same King you know what he does after he declared war on Legash or the rival place
wins, and what does he do after that he declares a debt cancellation – [pause] for everybody in the kingdom because it seems
that the problem when you have these credit systems, money is basically in a set of IOU’s,
denominated in silver unless you’re merchants dealing with large transactions rarely actually
changes hands. The problem is in bad years people fall into
debt – [pause] because also the silver and grain are fixed
in relation to each other; that’s what money actually is but that a pretty problem if you,
if there’s a bad harvest, the price doesn’t go up. You’re stuck, the farmers fall terribly
into debt. As a result people start taking away their flocks, taking away their fields,
taking away members of their family. Debt peonage becomes a huge phenomena, they start
running away joining nomad bands outside the city, society seems to be breaking down so
kings will normally come in and sort of declare a clean slate. “Alright, commercial debts
can stay on the books usually but consumer debt, we’ll wipe them out and start over again.”
This becomes a habit and become systematized in the Biblical Jubilee every 7 to 49 years
depending on your reading. Debts are wiped out; everybody gets to go home. In fact the first recorded word for freedom
in any human language is the Sumerian word “amargi” which literally means return to mother
because that’s what happens. They declare debt cancellation, all the debt peons get
to go home. [pause] So, this virtual money systems comes first
which is always very entertaining because people have this tendency to write about virtual
money as a new phenomena; we’re in this brave new world. Actually it’s the original form
of money. Coins come later. Barter, incidentally, tends to only really show up when you have
people who are used to using money but actually can’t get their hands on any. So you do have documented places where people
do say, “I’ll give you 20 chickens for that cow,” but in almost every case it’s something
like Russia in the 90’s where the economy falls apart where the money supply vanishes
and people are trying to carry on as if they had money without money. Or in a prison, they
turn cigarettes into money because they’re all used to using money. [pause] Now, here’s the interesting thing: coins are
invented nearly simultaneously, it happens first in Lydian in the Eastern Mediterranean,
but shortly thereafter at least in broad historical terms it happens in the Ganges Plain in Northern
India and in the plains of Northern China, Ganges Valley, I’m sorry. And — [pause] in every case there were different physical
techniques; in one case stamped, in one case cast, but – [pause] social situation seems to be the same which
is that money, in the physical sense, currency, is actually invented to pay soldiers. And
it makes perfect sense if you think about it because gold and silver are what money’s
denominated with and you can use it for exchange but it just isn’t usually done. But soldiers are exactly the sort of people
who are most likely to be doing this, first of all from the perspective of a soldier,
gold and silver has a huge advantage over a credit arrangement because you can’t actually
steal a credit arrangement; you can’t run off with it. On the other hand, gold and silver
it’s kind of your equivalent of the suitcase full of hundred dollar bills and nobody knows
where it’s from, nobody asks, anybody’ll take it. So for soldiers that’s very nice, you
can also melt it down whatever, divide it up into small portions. So soldiers are likely to be carrying around
loot. And second of all, if you have elaborate credit arrangements as the major way of transacting,
well, a heavily armed guy who’s just passing through is probably the person you’d least
like to extend credit to if you can possibly avoid it, if he’s carrying around little bits
of gold and silver, well, good. So cash markets insofar as they seem to first emerge will
tend to emerge right around where ever armies are parked or where they have recently looted
things and are trying to get rid of the little bits of gold and silver and acquire the wine,
women, and song, and various other things that they like. [pause] Governments very quickly get in on the deal
and, in fact, one interesting thing is, by the Adam Smith account, if money just sort
of emerges from the need to get over the inconveniences of barter, well it would be very hard to understand
why governments demanded taxes in money. It might seem self evident but the moment you
think about it it isn’t because if gold and silver are just money well why not just grab
the gold and silver mines? And in fact governments would do that. I mean, ancient kings would
normally grab the gold and silver mines and, in theory, you have all the gold and silver
you want, you’ve got all the money. Why would you then take the stuff, stamp your picture
on it, give it to people, and say, “Okay, everybody in the kingdom has to give me one
of these back again?” Think about it, it’s kind of odd. But it makes perfect sense if you’re trying
to feed an army. Here you have this army of 100,000 people, they’re sittin’ in a town
on the border, well, how are you gonna get food to them? Under ancient conditions unless
they’re next to the ocean where it’s easy, relatively easy to move stuff around, it’s
extremely difficult to move around large amounts of grain, they’re gonna eat everything within
walking distance in a matter of weeks. So what are you gonna do? Either you have to
employ another 100,000 people just bringing them stuff or you can give them all tiny little
pieces of metal with your picture on it and say, “Okay, everybody in the kingdom has to
give me one back.” Voila you’ve just employed your entire population getting soldiers things
they want. [laughter] And that’s [chuckles] essentially what taxation
systems have done throughout world history. I mean, colonial empires did this very, very
self consciously like in Madagascar where I was, first thing the French did they said,
“Okay we’ve just conquered you, that was very expensive outfitting an army, you’re going
to have to pay us back for the cost of having conquered you. We will issue paper money and
you will have to give 10 of those back to us every year.” It was a way of creating a
market. Somehow or another you’re gonna have, they actually called it the moralizing tax
to teach people the value of work. So money and taxes have been used throughout
the centuries as ways of creating markets which is very interesting because we have
this assumption that markets and governments and particularly war-making governments are
opposed principles and that political choice for the last century or so has largely revolved
around which one we’re gonna slant to. Are we gonna go more on the government side, more
on the market side? Those are the two sort of logical human possibilities. Ever since people like Herbert Spencer early
19th century we’ve always assumed there’s an opposition between these things, historically
in fact no. Markets tend to be created by governments as a side effect of military operations.
They sometimes take on a life of their own but the origins have very closely linked. So to go back to these periods of history:
so you have this first period of virtual money, coinage is invented around 600 B.C., Karl
Jaspers, the German existential philosopher who coined the phrase, “the Axial Age” for
this period and he pointed out that almost all major schools, both of world philosophy
and the great world religions, crop up in a relatively short period of time. If you
extend it from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. it’s exactly, it starts happening exactly the times and
places where they invent coinage; uncanny. It’s even in the same city, it’s in Greece,
Miletus, which is a place where they, the first Greek city, where they’re using coins
in everyday transactions, is where they invent Greek philosophy at exactly the same time. In China it happens, in India it happens,
world religions arise. World religions arise largely as peace movements against these empires
that are using the coins and people have talked about Axial Ages as being characterized by
a military coinage slavery complex, actually they say military coinage, but I’ll throw
in slavery because the chattel slavery which isn’t a major institution either before or
after, in Indian and Chinese history, for example, becomes really big in just in this
little slice of time. People take these standing armies, they pay
them in cash. Alexander’s Army for example I think it took half a ton of silver a day
to pay the army. Where did they get the silver? Well the armies would besiege cities, take
lots of prisoners, enslave them, send to the mines, and they made more metal to feed the
army again. So, it became this giant cycle. So, coins are actually found pretty much where
armies are throughout the ancient world. In Rome it was in Italy, I mean, 90 percent of
all finds of Roman coins are in Italy and along the border where the armies were stationed. Alright, so Axial Age you have this rise of
world religions, they start as peace movements, there’s this kind of mutual division of social
territory in a way because before you don’t really have impersonal markets, you have credit
markets. When you have impersonal markets based on
cash the idea is well, it’s almost like saying, “Well, here’s a space where, well just think
about material goods and getting as much of them for yourself as possible.” And it almost
makes sense that if you do that someone else will also say, “Alright and here’s a space
we’ll call it religion where we think about why material things are not important and
why it’s better to give than to receive,” and charity and things like that always crop
up as an idea that never really existed before as a conception in human history, exactly
the same place as you get these impersonal markets as part of these religions. So you get that but gradually the empires
come to a crisis, they start crumbling, they adopt the world religions, Confucianism in
China, Ashoka adopts Buddhism, Constantine goes for Christianity at exactly the moment
the empire’s starting to fall apart, doesn’t really work, empires dissolve. And you get the Middle Ages where once the
armies, standing armies dissolve, all the gold and silver basically gets put back in
churches and monasteries, people go back to credit systems and the world religions take
over the regulation of these large, elaborate credit systems. And so, for example, in the Middle East checks
are invented and widely used. Already in Basra around 800 or 900 people were reporting majority
of transactions in the marketplace are by check. Check is actually an Arab word meaning
check. [chuckles] [laughter] Yeah, I always like to point out to people
when they talk about financial globalization as if this is somehow a new phenomena. Like,
think about the terms “cash” and “checks,” cash or a check, like, check is an Arab word
meaning check and cash, well, has a double etymology but one of them apparently is originally
a Tamil for Chinese money. How did that happen? Alright, so you have this world where people
are going back to use of credit and we say, “Oh, in the Middle Ages, the Europe reverted
to barter.” Not true. In fact, if you look at the records they’re not bartering things
they’re actually using money but they’re using money that doesn’t physically exist. So, they’re
still using Roman currency and denominating everything in Roman currency until Charlemagne
and then they’re using Carolingian currency. But the Carolingian currency only actually
exists for maybe 20 years and some of it doesn’t exist at all. It’s like pounds, shillings,
and pence originally come from Charlemagne’s system. He never actually made pounds, he
never got around to it, but they were using it to measure things and they actually called
this imaginary money. So whatever the king was actually putting out that was one thing,
but you had this sort of ideal system which spanned Europe, everybody knew what it was
so you could trade and do it on the basis of this money that didn’t actually exist. And they even had a phenomena they used to
call crying up or crying down the currency. So a king could say, “Alright, whatever we’re
using right now, it used to be 17 of these pennies were a shilling; I’m gonna change
it, now it’ll be 13.” If he–, so he could inflate the currency if he was in debt or
if he wanted to raise taxes he lowered it. So, he just rearranged whatever the currency
was being used which was only used for occasionally things because again most transactions were
on credit in relation to, or they could recall it. I mean, the king said, “Okay let’s recall
the money and I’ll give it back again next year.” And commerce would not stop because
everything was based on credit systems. Similarly in China they invent paper money
which originally comes out of the government taking credit instruments that people are
using and adopting it themselves. That’s what they do in China anytime there’s innovation
first they try to suppress it and they say, “Okay, okay we’ll do it for you.” So it’s
all privatized in the Islamic world and it becomes public in China. Actually they are very opposite principles
but – [pause] in Islam, in particular, in this period, you
get the first real free market ideology. And this is a fascinating thing I mean a lot of
people will be very annoyed to learn this, but Adam Smith actually got most of his best
ideas and best lines from medieval Islam. Like the pin factory actually comes from al-Ghazali
in 1100 he had a needle factory. Okay. And it’s made possible by what? By Sharia,
because [chuckles] Sharia is civil law that operates outside the purview of state, and,
as a result, you can have markets and since they get rid of usury, that’s the other thing
that happens, instead of debt cancellation, which has continued in China but in other
places they, instead, just get rid of interest taking, it’s illegal, debt peonage becomes
illegal. And so in Islam, since they don’t have that,
they can these markets that operate completely outside of the purview of the state and you
could write a check in Mali and cash it in Indonesia and it’s all civil courts that take
care of it. So it’s the first time you really get an idea that markets run by themselves
and don’t really need governments. But since they had a real free market which
isn’t enforced by the state, they don’t assume it’s all about competition, that’s like a
minor element. The assumption is that it’s all really an extension of mutual aid. Alright, so be this as it may you get that
world in the Middle Ages which looks surprisingly good, slavery largely disappears. I mean it’s
kind of rough in Western Europe but Western Europe is kind of a barbarian backwater anyway.
[chuckles] Alright, so what happens? Around 1450 it starts
to go bad, then by 1492 you get the all this gold and silver coming in from America. As
you go back to gold and silver currency, slavery comes back in a big way, standing armies and
giant empires come back in a big way. And that’s the period that’s ending now; [pause] 1971 is the date that most people set for
when we go off the gold standard and Nixon sort of takes the dollar off the gold standard
as this sort of key point of transition. And very rapidly after that you see a whole series
of changes. Of course, we get credit cards which hardly anybody’s using in ’71, very
quickly taking over so that you had cashless transactions become the rule within a generation
or two. You have financialization of capital, most profits for American companies no longer
come from making or selling anything, but largely from financial speculation. You have
credit’s gonna save the world, microcredit will save the Third World, 401k’s and mortgages,
all that stuff that blows up in 2008. And the question is why? Why it seems to have
gone so horribly wrong? Because we have a series of terrible debt crises, first the
Third World debt crisis, now the debt crisis that’s hitting everybody other than the Third
World right now — [pause] have happened ever since. And the reason,
I would say, is because in a way we’re doing things backwards. If we do look at this in
broad historical perspective what we learn is that whenever you have a system of virtual
money where people don’t assume that money is a thing but assume it’s a promise, it’s
an IOU, it’s a social arrangement such as in ancient Mesopotamia, such as in the Middle
Ages, well, you have to set up some sort of mechanism to make sure the thing doesn’t go
crazy. Usually that means, invariably that means, setting up some mechanism to protect
debtors. So you could have periodic debt cancellation, you can have anti-usury laws where interest
taking is banned entirely and instead you have profit sharing, there’s a number of things
you can do. Usually it’s some giant overarching, cosmological system beyond the purview of
any state, whether it’s sacred kings or biblical prophets, or the world religions, canon law,
Sharia. Be it as it may it has to be something big. Now we do set up giant, overarching institutions
like that nowadays but what do we do? We set up the IMF to protect creditors against debtors.
Basically, we did it backwards. S&P all these other institutions like that they come up
with this idea that nobody should ever default which is absurd. And sure enough we have endless
series of debt crises. In fact, I like to say I mean when I’m being
provocative, which is often, I like to say that that sort of idea that people had in
most of world history of the worse case scenarios everybody falls so deeply into debt that they
start having to sell themselves into slavery. It’s like nightmare scenario, this is what
we always wanna prevent and that’s why we have all these laws. Well, you know if Aristotle were here today
he would probably think that the distinction between being so indebted that you are selling
yourself to work for others all day long, 12 hours a day, or being so indebted that
you are renting yourself to work for others all day long, 12 hours a day, as something
of a legalistic distinction. He would think this is it, this is the nightmare debt trap
and most people in the world are falling into it. But if you look at this in broad historical
terms, you’ll also see that 30 years or 40 years is nothing; we’re talking about 500
year cycles here, and people are beginning to wake up to this. We still have time to
get it right. And I think the social movements that are coming out since 2008 around issues
of debt are precisely recognizing that. If we’re moving into a period of virtual money,
money is just a promise that we make to each other, it’s just a set of IOU’s and social
arraignments, arrangements; those can always be rearranged. Make a promise to someone,
circumstances change, you negotiate and the big players always do that with each other
as we’ve discovered in 2008 when trillions of dollars of debt was made to disappear by
the waving of various types of magical wands. [chuckles] [laughter] So what people are saying is if democracy
is to mean anything now it means that everybody gets to weigh in on what sort of promises
are made, what sort of promises are kept, and when circumstances change what sort are
renegotiated and I think that’s the political moment that we’re in right now. [pause] [applause] [pause] Ah, a question, yes.>>Male #1: So when this, I have to say it’s
fascinating and along the same lines, in this era if you have currency with runaway debt
explosions what, if I can ask you to speculate, what do you think would be a good way to look
at, what would be a good rate of risk, what would be a good pre-rate of return on investment
as an adjustment to?>>David Graeber: Risk free rate of return,
go on.>>Male #1: If we had a fair society –>>David Graeber: Um-hum.>>Male #1: if you could define a fair society
by edict –>>David Graeber: Okay, I’m now the dictator.>>Male #1: how, we used to have, you say we
used to have jubilees and cancel debts –>>David Graeber: Um-hum.>>Male #1: so short of having a jubilee, debt
is a strange thing, somebody mentioned exactly if you have idle grain and it gets eaten by
rodents and slowly diminished and rots –>>David Graeber: Um-hum.>>Male #1: but debt is funny because it accumulates
over time rather than –>>David Graeber: Yeah, um-hum.>>Male #1: diminishing over time. Would you
argue for us having a negative free rate of return on investment?>>David Graeber: I would argue actually –>>Male #2: David, could you please repeat
the question?>>David Graeber: The question, what’s that?>>Male #3: [unintelligible]>>David Graeber: Oh I understand, yes. So the question is if I could dictate my own
economic policy what sort of rate of return would I dictate? A negative one such as occurred
through natural spoilage equivalent rather than imposing an idea that money necessarily
has to grow. That’s an interesting question. I mean it’s interesting that our entire sort
of perspective on what money should do and has to do goes back to arguments about this
in the Middle Ages. Since usury was illegal the way they got around
it was to come up with the notion of interest which was originally a late fee. So the idea
is you’re not paying interest, you’re not renting money which is wrong, you’re just
charging people for failure to return it on the basis of the idea that money would grow
because this is all between merchants at first, if you were investing it. So you can ask for
five percent rate of return because money would normally, you’d get about a five percent
investment rate. And that five percent number has kind of stuck with us, in a way, because
it’s about the number that like any economy is expected it really ought to grow, if it
doesn’t there’s a problem. And it’s interesting it is exactly the amount of the originally
stipulated rate of return. And there were usury laws until quite recent,
I guess 1980 they actually got rid of them, which held it down to a fairly reasonable
rate or what was considered so at the time. I mean, myself, I actually do think a Jubilee
would be reasonable [chuckles] so in a way I would jump forward from this. I end the
book by throwing that out and I’m a radical so I’m not gonna be like stipulating rates
of return. I’m gonna say like we just need to wipe the slate clean conceptually altogether
and come up with a new way of thinking about the system. So I think a Jubilee is useful as an idea
because it, not only would it be nice because a lot of people could really us debt forgiveness
right now, a lot of the big players got it and everybody else didn’t. But because it
would allow us to reconceptualize what we’re doing here and realize that money isn’t what
we thought it was. So what kind of system we’d come up with in
the wake of that, I’ve got a lot of ideas but I wanna leave that as open as possible
so I just sort of ended the book by saying rather than come up with a plan like that,
we just sort of create this sort of cataclysmic event which will sort of allow us to start
asking those questions. I’ve heard recently, I didn’t know this, somebody
told me that the Boston Consulting Group which is guess if Jeffrey Sachs’ people, ran a model
to see what would happen if they actually did a Jubilee. And they said that it would
cause severe economic disruption but rather less than you would get if you don’t have
a Jubilee. [chuckles] [laughter] So either way we’re screwed but you’d be a
little less screwed if we did it that way. So it turns out that it might not be a bad
idea. I mean I think that we should start thinking
about completely radically different forms of money entirely. Interest free systems would
be possible. The reason why things like Islamic banking don’t work is because not everybody’s
doing it. If you force people to do profit sharing rather than interest taking, if everybody
did it, it would work. [pause]>>Male #3: One, two, three. Is money [unintelligible]
amount to the debt we’re seeing today, governmentally and personally in America and how it’s all
over the globe at sometime [unintelligible]?>>David Graeber: Yeah it’s really odd because
–>>Male #4: Could you repeat the question?>>David Graeber: Yeah, okay me repeat the
question: is there any precedent for the sheer amount of debt? I would say probably not but I mean unless
you wanna count the South Sea bubble or something like that. You do have these speculative crises
that crop up periodically, but the mystery is just how many people owe things to each
other and you have to start asking yourself, “Well, who’s it all owed to? Everybody seems
to be in debt, this is sort of puzzling in a way.” And I would say, no, and one reason why is
because there seems to be this feeling since the 70’s that basically all social problems
can be solved through debt. One theory I saw, which is kind of interesting,
it’s the autonomist reading, Midnight Notes Collective, it’s a group of Italian autonomist
Marxists. But they had this very interesting reading of the two phases of post-war capitalism.
What they basically said is that after World War II they kinda gave a deal to the North
Atlantic white working class and they said, “Okay, if you guys don’t become commies we’ll
give you free education, free health care in most places anyway, we’ll give you social
benefits of various kinds.” And social struggles between 1945 and 1975
where more and more people asking in on the deal. And there is a tie between productivity
and wages. So whenever, and the lines go up together, increases of productivity are met
with increases of wages. Since the 70’s the deal is clearly off and
one reason is because they reached kind of crisis of inclusion that you can’t actually
give that deal to everybody without fundamentally changing the nature of the system. So first
minorities, so you have the Civil Rights Movement, other people who’ve been left out of the deal
want in, people in the Global South want in, women want in, feminist movement. It reaches
a point where it just sort of snaps and you have this fiscal crisis, oil crunch, ecological
crisis and they say, “Alright, deal off, we’ll give you another deal. No longer will wages
be connected with productivity, you can all have political rights because political rights
don’t necessarily give you any economic benefits, but you can have credit.” So the credit solves everything, everybody’s
being, that’s why you have microcredit saves the Third World, why you have 401k’s and mortgages
and there’s this huge extension of credit. And you could say the same thing happened,
right? More and more people want in on the deal and more and more people are getting
credit to the point where people they’re just doing these crazy sub-prime scams and things
like that are beginning to run the system. And when it cracks it looks almost exactly
the same, you get the oil shock, you get the financial crisis, you get the visions of ecological
catastrophe. It’s the same thing all over again except at this point it’s not clear
what they’re [chuckles] gonna come up with next. So, in that sense, yeah, you have this unprecedented
series of bubbles, built on bubbles, built on bubbles. And I’m speaking as someone who’s
working the Global Justice Movement and we were like doing our studies for the G20 as
part of like several intellectual collectives where they kind of, the activists kind of
told us, “Alright, well, they’re all meeting to come up with their evil plan and tell us
what their evil plan is likely to do so we can oppose it.” And so we figure it and I guess they’re gonna
have to do green capitalism, declare an emergency, we had various ideas for what would be a viable
solution. And they kept not doing it; they just fight each other. In fact one of the
reasons why the Global Justice Movement fell into such a problem is, like, at least in
2000 we knew what their evil plan was [laughs] and we could oppose it. And now they don’t
seem to be able to come up with one, we had better ideas for their evil plan than they
did. [chuckles] So we were sitting around and saying, “Well,
come on guys come up with your formula and we can fight you.” And they wouldn’t so they
were sort of stuck on this credit like bubble system that fell apart and they haven’t quite
come up with what they’re gonna do next. So I’m waitin’. [laughter] [pause]>>Male #4: So taking the other side of the
coin [unintelligible] extra help why should anybody pay their debt at all?>>David Graeber: Why should anybody pay debt
at all? Well, I mean you could say the same question of all those guys who were bailed
out, the bankers, I mean, moral hazard works on both sides. [pause]>>Male #4: Well, I mean, it’s the same case.>>David Graeber: Yeah, I mean –>>Male #4: I don’t think that they should
have been helped either.>>David Graeber: Hum. Yeah I know a lot of
people think that but it’s interesting that they got helped because as a lot of people
point out all this mortgage debt if they just paid off the mortgages that would have bailed
out the banks in itself, but they chose to give it to the banks and not to the mortgage
holders. And this is a pattern that you do see throughout world history is that debt
means something totally different; depends on who it’s between. When you have debt between two poor people
like somebody wants to make a loan to their brother, it’s usually because they wanna give
them a gift but they don’t wanna say that, save face, say it’s a loan. If he can pay
you back, he will. Between equals, between people who know and like and trust each other,
debt is just a broad moral feeling that you should come through for somebody. And between the big players it’s the same,
too. I mean you see this all throughout history. Like, even the earliest Sumerian documents
you have people saying, “Oh well of course you’re not gonna charge me interest because
we’re both gentlemen,” this sort of thing. And when the big players are in trouble, debt
can always be renegotiated, too. What seems to be sacred or treated as if it were sacred
is not debts between equals but debts between the people on top and the people on the bottom
because all of a sudden it takes on a completely different color. So, yeah, I suppose you could come up with
a morality saying like, “Even equals should treat debt as exact [ inaudible ] quantifiable
and unforgivable.” But it seems that you’re not going to convince people who actually
like each other to not forgive each other when they’re in trouble. Instead it seems
more reasonable to expect everybody to do it, apply that uniformly rather because that
philosophy of debt as something that can never be forgiven, as something that is sacred,
really only crops up in situations of sort of structural coercion of extreme inequality. [pause]>>Male #5: How much of our sense of debt is
biological, how much of it is from society and how much of it is regulatory?>>David Graeber: Okay, so the question is
how much of our sense of debt is biological and how much of it is from society and how
much is regulatory. By regulatory you mean just sort of imposed by –>>Male #5: In order to make everything work
right.>>David Graeber: Right, I see. Well I mean in terms of biological, my argument
in terms of biological instincts is it’s not like they don’t exist, clearly they do. I
think it’s pretty naive when people say, “Oh we’re just Tabula Rasa,” written on by society.
No, we’re not, we have all sorts of urges, but that I would emphasize the all sorts.
Generally speaking in any situation we have biological drives like making us do a thousand
different contradictory things. So freedom is deciding which one to act on. In the book, I sort of map out three different
sort of ways of thinking about the morality of giving and taking of things, one of which
I call communism from each according to their ability to each according to their needs;
one of which I call exchange; and one of which I call hierarchy. Exchange is based on principles
of reciprocity, but hierarchy is based not, on the opposite. It’s like if you do something
you’re expected to do it again. And all of these things are operative at any
moment and you could, like, call, and usually what you’re doing is kind of a mix of these
different types of principles. So biologically and even that kind of fundamental sociality,
yeah, there is a degree to which you’re always gonna be able to think of things in terms
of debt, but it’s never the only way. So you’re always playing around with all these sort
of different ways you could frame it. And in terms of regulation – [pause] well, what’s interesting is when you try to
justify things in the big picture very often that’s when you fall back on language of debt
and reciprocity. You see this all the time dealing with feudal lords in the Middles Ages.
If you give somebody a gift you’re expected to do the same thing again next year. In fact
you need a special document, like, if I give a gift to a king I have to make him sign a
paper saying I don’t have to do that next year because anything you do between unequals
the precedent, you have to do it again. However, then when they wanna talk about what
is justice, why is our society just, they’ll say, “Well it’s all reciprocity, lords fight
for everyone and priests pray for everyone and peasants make food for everyone and it’s
all this sort of equal swap.” It’s a completely, it has nothing to do with the way things actually
operate on the ground. Somebody might call this a sort of like overall
social regulatory or justification level where people are saying, nobody actually says, “Well,
you haven’t really been fighting for me very much this year so I’m gonna give you less
food” [chuckles] or “You’re prayer level is down or you’ve been praying more so we’re
gonna give you more.” It’s nothing to do with the way people actually interact but they
like to think of this idea of debt and reciprocity as a language to justify social relations
that often operate on completely different principles. [pause] Uh, yes.>>Male #6: I live in San Francisco and there’s
14,000 people since 2008 who have either had their houses foreclosed or are in the process
–>>David Graeber: Um-hum.>>Male #6: as a [unintelligible] houses [unintelligible]
mortgages paid.>>David Graeber: Um-hum.>>Male #6: and in Northern California. Are
there historical precedents or what would it look like to build a movement for a Jubilee
to relieve our debt instead of bankers?>>David Graeber: Well there’s a huge history
of that. Peter Linebaugh has –>>Male #7: Could you repeat the question?>>David Graeber: Oh I’m sorry, the question
is, there’s massive foreclosures going on here in California including San Francisco,
people are being kicked out of their homes by banks that have themselves been bailed
out by the public including those people who’ve been kicked out from their homes and what
would it take to create a mass movement? Are there historical precedents for that? The answer is yeah. As I say the vast majority
of social movements that have existed in history have been about debt. There have been debt
strikes, there have been seizing and destroying the records which of course electronically
is now harder to do. In the Depression there was a systematic policy
of disrupting sales when they’d foreclose on farms all the farmers in the neighborhood
would show up at the auction with guns and somebody would bid one dollar [chuckles] and
no dared to say anything else and they’d give it back to the farmer again. So there is a [chuckles] huge amount of precedent
for that sort thing, but you can never do it the same way twice. The problem with organizing
debtors politically is that debt is very alienating; it’s must easier to organize people when you
have a bunch of farmers in a neighborhood they know each other. But what we have now
is most people who have student loan debt, mortgage debt, don’t actually know people
in the same situation or people are even ashamed to admit it. There’s really no forum in which
people can compare notes and come up with common strategies. So one strategy that people have been using
has been some sort of pledge, some people are doing a student loan project where they’re
saying, “Alright, if we get a million signatures we’ll all stop paying simultaneously.” But
it has to be something like that because it’s very, very difficult to build, you’re taking
such a risk when you default or when you threaten to. You’re taking such a risk that it’s very
difficult to do that based on trust of other people you don’t know. [pause] So that’s the question how you organize people
to be and what to do. Um –>>Male presenter: commentator: Let’s take
one more question and then we have stuff to do.>>David Graeber: Okay you can decide who then. [laughter]>>Female #1: Is there [unintelligible] how
debt is handled for those who are [unintelligible] and those who are not such parents and children,
such as very traditionally men and women?>>David Graeber: Okay, the question is in
traditional societies or other societies are their differences between how debt is handled
in the paid labor force and unpaid relations like –>>Female #1: Like the debt between those two
groups.>>David Graeber: Debts, oh, oh, how debt between.
So you’re talking, give me an example.>>Female #1: What children owe their parents
–>>David Graeber: Which I thought you meant
that.>>Female #1: or before you could only work
inside the home you couldn’t really [unintelligible] go outside of that [unintelligible].>>David Graeber: Right so how do you deal
with the relationship between, right, debts between people within a household or where
there’s a community of property between you and outsiders? It’s an interesting question because, in fact,
it’s a perfect example of what I was talking about how we try to frame everything in terms
of exchange or some need to do so, even things that don’t work that way at all. And the other
point that I was making about how we try to frame things morally in terms of debt. ‘Cause
you’ll often find people saying, “Well, this is how we repay our parents for the pains
of childbirth and what they do.” But in almost every case it’s a metaphor, it has nothing
to do with how people actually related to each other. So often when you see how people are actually
interacting it’s on a principle that has nothing to do with debt, you’re not calculating equivalents
at all. But then when you want to think about it in a bigger picture, suddenly you’re trying
to figure out some way to say it’s all about debt. So I actually use this story about this famous
Canadian naturalist whose father presented him with a bill for everything he owed him
up to the age of 21. He said, “Okay, here’s how much it cost to pay the doctor to deliver
you, here’s your primary education.” He had it all worked out and he gave him the bill
and the guy paid it and said, “Fine, the hell with you, I’m never going to speak to you
again,” and walked off. But that’s what it basically means because when you’re paying
a debt it implies we need have no further relations. So the idea of actually paying
a debt between people that you love is utterly insulting; you’d only do it if you really
wanna have nothing further to do with each other. But nonetheless people like to frame it in
those terms. One of the most fascinating concepts I discovered when researching this was the
notion of the milk debt. This is a medieval Chinese Buddhist concept. What they did was
they calculated what they thought was the exact number of pecks of milk you absorb from
your mother [chuckles] in the first years of your life and that’s a fundamental debt
you owe to your mother and said, “Okay, you owe exactly 37 pecks of milk.” But then they
would say, “Alright, to pay back even like one day’s worth of milk would in fact take
400,000 years of feeding her off your own personal flesh. [laughs] I mean so it was
a way of saying, “You could not conceivably pay this debt.” So why are they calculating as a debt at all?
It’s again that same tension if you wanna frame debt as morality and they say they’re
the same thing, but as soon as you do you say, “Except not really, it’s completely ridiculous
isn’t it?” So that tension like the need to pretend that
it’s a debt but then once you say it, like, it’s actually not a debt at all. It’s absurd
to even think of a debt, why are we saying this, recurs over and over and over again.
And it’s because commerce gives us this idea that we wanna frame everything in commercial
terms, that we really ought to, that we start doing that and then we say, “No, actually,
we can’t.” [pause]>>Male Presenter: Let’s thank David. [applause]

100 thoughts on “David Graeber: “DEBT: The First 5,000 Years” | Talks at Google

  1. Emil Nicolaie Perhinschi Post author

    did I miss where Graeber mentions Marcel Mauss or doesn't he mention him at all ?

  2. Genevieve Tran Post author

    He talks about soldiers using gold and silver and then "governments got in on it", but if so, who issued those to soldiers in the first place?? Also, why would they need to buy anything at their pillage site with gold coins minted with their ruler when they could just pillage the stuff. That money wouldn't have been necessarily recognized in foreign lands. It would make sense if Graeber had said it motivated conscription efforts and was used to pay their salary/families.

  3. ACiD Beatz Post author

    17:41 it's spelled Tiv and pronounced "TEEV"; I'm Tiv. Props for the shout out!

  4. EMH Post author

    Debt is such a big problem today, because debt is so much more integrated into today's society. Modern westerners spend future income to buy luxury products, services and experiences. That might not be a problem IF their future income were secure and predictable. But today, just because you have a profitable income stream today, doesn't necessarily mean you'll have it tomorrow.

    Think about the 30 year mortgage. You're debt is secured for 30 years, but the income you use to pay that debt, isn't secure. Imagine the kind of housing we'd have IF we couldn't use long-term debt to buy it. What would housing prices be in the US if the longest mortgage you could get was 10 years? What would the price of cars be if you could only borrow on 36 month terms, or …loans on cars wasn't an option? What would prices be like IF credit cards didn't exist. All you could have was a debit card, or charge card that had to be paid in full each month?

    Our debt based consumer culture not only wrecks people's lives, it drives up prices.

    What would the cost of college be, IF there was limited ability to get a student loan? Debt really has gotten out of hand.

  5. John Stewart Post author

    What he says about John Adams doesn't quite make sense. Wikipedia cites Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote (2000) pp 5–8
    as saying that 50-80 percent of men owned land in colonial America. So, the same percent were eligible to vote, not the 20 percent that Graeber describes.

  6. Selino Post author

    He really really really needs to take a public speaking course. It's so painful listening to a monotoned person mumble to themselves for an hour. The disconnect between his message and his ability to communicate it verbally is a tragedy.

  7. nathen morris Post author

    Its like the majority people couldn't use common sense so he had to go into a long winded explanation on how gold and paper was evil

  8. michele piteo Post author

    I don't believe in re-incarnation;twas a ruse invented by the Bhudda to incite simple folk to find creative worth if they packed a suit-case across life-times as the same soul. None of it= we are recycled from the archtypes in the collective unconscious oversoul. Debt was the basis of the appalling Caste System that The East cast everyone into. Apparently if you are poor, you were not trying hard enough in the last life-time. If that is not poppy-cock i don't know what is

  9. Will Roberts Post author

    Never had a real job in his life yet believes he understands how the world works. So sick of these people.

  10. Mousehead2000 Post author

    Glad he didn't sip the coffee. I hate the sound of someone eating or drinking especially when amplified by a microphone.

  11. noezwayout76 Post author

    I had a conversation with someone that said they valued their education more when they paid for it. It never occurred that this was a time when education was still affordable and meant something other than enriching the self (my graduate school equals years of free labor and tons of loans). The unbelievable burden of debt and the inability to pay it back is the only reason I dropped out of my first graduate school. I'd advocate dropping out for any new graduate student rather than settling for losing financial freedom. I wish I'd understood getting in was the easiest part. Paying it off, that was the worst. The mental stress has deteriorated the quality of material my mind has retained. At this point, I keep desiring to continue my education, but I'm so afraid that this is just another trap. I've completed upper level education and menial labor jobs over the span of my life. Aren't college degrees worth something other than mountains of debt? Intrinsically, I wouldn't take back any of my schooling, but that adds no monetary value. According to business savy individuals, I'm not a "go getter." Does this mean my acquired skills mean zilch? Sheesh! Rant over, I do apologize.

  12. Dennis Spain Post author

    I invite feedback on a “To Hell with Fractional-Reserve Bankers Constitutional Amendment”:
    September 6, 2017
    (1) Rescind the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 and replace all Federal Reserve notes and check book balances in all U.S. banking institutions (and any other domestic credit-creating institutions) on a 1-to-1 basis with U.S. Treasury-issued dollars and U.S. Treasury-denominated bank balances.
    (2) Honor only the repayment of principal on all presently existing financial contracts in the U.S. Federal Reserve banking system and prohibit the interest payments on these fraudulent contracts. Payments on principal for these presently existing financial contracts are not to be extinguished from the money supply, as is heretofore the case. Prohibit all future lending by any banking institution of funds which do not originate from actual savings of the holders of the new U.S. Treasury dollar notes and U.S. Treasury denominated bank balances and stringently require any interest charges to be determined solely by the two parties involved in these valid loan contracts. (A valid loan contract is an actual lending of the previous savings of one party to another party for a stipulated time period.)
    (3) Fund infrastructure projects nationwide which cross state borders with U.S. Treasury-issued currency in amounts proportional to the population of each state affected and without leaving any state's cross-border infrastructure needs unfunded. These infrastructure projects are to be authorized by Acts of Congress and can include, but not exclusively of other examples of infrastructure, roads, airports, harbors, waterways, pipelines, electric utility lines, high speed rail, etc. all such projects being put out to bid to private companies on a competitive basis.
    (4) Fund the U.S. Military with Treasury-issued currency.
    (5) Fund Disability and Medical Insurance for all U.S. citizens with Treasury-issued currency, awarding contracts to private firms for such services on an openly competitive basis and in such a manner as to apportion the created funding according to each State's population.
    (6) Continue to fund Social Security retirement liabilities separately by a tax on workers’ incomes throughout their working life and absolutely sequester these funds from any outflow payments other than to retirees.
    (7) Abolish the Federal Income Tax and institute a federal sales tax with a varying yearly tax rate adjusted by the U.S. Congress in session, the sole aim of such adjustments being to maintain a stable Consumer Price Index based on data collected by the Federal Government. Any such sales taxes taken in by the Federal Government are simply extinguished from the currency supply to keep the Consumer Price Index stable or decreasing.
    (8) There are to be only two federal taxes levied on the American citizenry: sales taxes, receipts of which are extinguished to prevent inflation; and social security taxes applied to retirement accounts. Thus there is no need for the Internal Revenue Service. That agency is hereby abolished.

  13. Fa Vang Post author

    Can anybody explain why David Graeber & Stefan Molynuex are anarchist? While to me they seem more futurist/communist reformers? I thought Anarchist are anti-government/anti-culture or radical libertarian?

  14. Furless, Greedy Brained, Bipedal Creature Post author

    People keep talking about how he talks and his cup. I think his speaking is annoying because of the way his voice rises and falls, how his thoughts seem to jump all over the place, sometimes and because his teeth are in ruins and makes it harder for him to speak. I wonder why no one mentioned his teeth…

  15. Tom Servo Post author

    picking up the coffee is some sort of code for something …. maybe whenever someone enters the room …

  16. juggalo1 Post author

    I knew he was a bullshitter when at 6:30 he said debt and credit are not exactly the same thing.

  17. Floyd Lee Baldwin Post author

    Please learn to speak instead of mumbling, as though you are speaking to yourself.

  18. Mawizi Post author

    "debt is a business transaction"
    – According to whom?
    "a business transaction is an arrangement btwn two legally equivalent entities"
    – So what? Is your legal obligation to a bank any different today from the relationship that an ancient peasant had to his gods?

    Doesn't sound like debt is absurd. It's not fun but it's by no means irrational.

  19. Knight of Faith with Sunglasses Post author

    he is a very boring speaker, but his ideas are great.

  20. R Spencer Post author

    What a wealth of knowledge, good info. Oh, and sip already 🙂

  21. M Zero Post author

    So, no one in charge of these talks at Google ever noticed he needed more coffee? I thought that Google was more informed somehow.

  22. MegaMementoMori Post author

    Moral of the story: don't lend anybody money, except for small sums to your neighbours. This way, you won't sin, you won't be a loser if you happen to live in a culture that practices jubilee years and you could use the money you keep to do what all good men do – buy land and slaves/serfs so you can expand your capital the proper way.

  23. Sellisa Post author

    When I was a kid, I would let people borrow things. Sadly some of my black "friends" thought it was okay to steal from the white kid and just never gave it back. I don't know maybe they thought my parents owned slaves or something despite the fact we lived in the same poor neighborhood. One actually threatened me when I asked for the item back. This happened again within the last year to me when I lent money to my Hispanic "friend" to help him out of a bind. He apparently justified in his mind that I had plenty of money and he didn't need to pay me back. I like to help people but I'm not an altruist. Hard to build community when people do not play by the same rules. Sorry to make this a racial issue but my white and Asian friends pay their debts back in my limited experience. Any racism I harbor is directly related to my experience lending things to other races. My guess is that this whole experience is based on racism. The perception that white people have enough and can afford loss is also racism.

  24. GenXAgainstTheBoomers Post author

    Wonder no more peeps, they're going to elect a mentally ill TV actor who played an authoritarian entrepreneur and he's going to recreate the set of circumstances that led to banks over leveraging in the 2000s.

    Prepare to take to the streets and demand Fully Automated Eco-Communism.

  25. aSheeple Post author

    Pick up cup
    put down cup
    pick up cup
    put down cup

    something is missing in this loop.

  26. jamduke Post author

    "Commerce says we ought to frame everything in terms of debt and exchanges, but actually… we can't". What a devastatingly poignant and even, dare I say authoritative statement of our humanity. To sum it up so shortly: "We can't." We just can't, it just goes against every fiber of our being, and if we do transgress this limit, what hell are we in for…

  27. Tom Minogue Hastings Post author

    wait, his hair almost combed, sweater clean, well groomed, is this really david graeber?
    more tube lectures of graeber i see, smarter he sounds, more i like this dude,
    wanna chug beers with him.

  28. Yaroslav Levchenko Post author

    There's nothing bad about debt if you are not indebted. Nothing bad about slavery if you are not a slave.

  29. BigfootLebowski Post author

    at no point did u deal with the money system and unhowsymetrical it is…the people issuing the money have far more power than people working for that system…its always been asymmetrical …the banking system has always been about taking more from you than me its how we got what called fractional reserve banking…and its always been unequal…because if if someone makes you a loan for something they dont really have then you dont owe them at all, youve been swindled…thats modern banking…its not a simple transaction between people trying to make a deal thats reasonable…its im gonna fck u so hard and u wont see coming…thats why the banking and financial system is broke

  30. Sheila Ballantyne Post author

    Has he never heard of Margaret Atwood's book "Payback"?! Written in 2008?! "No one has ever written a book about the history of debt" (5:42). Otherwise an interesting talk.

  31. lovetheatre100 Post author

    I only carried on watching this just to see if he would take a drink learnt about debt in meantime

  32. Mark Freeman Post author

    32:00 This is obvious that tax is a penalty waged on a conquered populace.

  33. Mark Freeman Post author

    You might well find that the effort and work involved to organize a debt jubilee may well be greater than if one applied one self to earning more money and paying back the debt. Just a thought.

  34. kathleen smith Post author

    David says everyone is in debt –hmm? I can think of two groups of people that are probably not in debt – those people over 80 who have pensions – these people bought their houses when they were cheap they have long been paid off and have made them money and their pensions subsidizes what SS doesnt pay (this is my Dad) and the second is homeless people — nobody will give these people credit so they have no debt.

  35. reggiep75 Post author

    He's never gonna drink from that cup…. He's not supposed to.

    Even in the future, in another time and place, he'll not drink from another cup either. And it's ALL a deliberate focus point (or ploy) to make you store info as you focus deeper onto the cup and relax and casually press CTRL + S into your minds keyboard and save the info you are receiving, highly important info you'll need to recall from time to time.

    You'll remember the name David Graeber and the important info you were given, with ease.

    Keep focusing on the cup and relax, the info is going in… relax.

  36. Filmstvandlife Post author

    i prefer this with the subtitles because the first time i watched it ages ago i missed half of what he was saying because he talks like he has chewing tobacco in his mouth.

  37. GatorMacheteJr Post author

    I like how he completely ignores the need for barter in a situation a trader stops through an area for a week or two and need goods now since they won't be around to take place in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge giftconomy.

  38. Mars Eusani Post author

    The Native Americans had a system of debt cancellation : POTLATCH & it's part of the great added value created by Western Native American civilisations…

  39. alex carter Post author

    Oh, it'll happen. The Jubilee is coming. It's called socialist revolution. http://www.reddit.com/r/socialism is just one place to start, there's wsws.org, Socialist Alternative. a whole lot of organizations and information sources. A great one is www.socialistRA.org or www.socialistRA.com we working class need to be prepared for the party!

  40. Ewald Eicher Post author

    Universal Basic Income: https://basicincome.org/

  41. Neil Heckman Post author

    "Who is it all owed to, because everybody seems to be in debt?" (1:05:05). Great question for a follow up book!

  42. Steve Pelman Post author

    5000 years of taxes are leading to new revenues for cities from transit tech to reduce mass transit maintenance and create new public revenues. See tramwaypods.ca

  43. Sven Post author

    My parents made the mistake of making more humans. I'll never forgive them for that. Luckily I'm smarter and I will not make more human copies to suffer a few years and live through a shitstorm of nonsense (and maybe do it to others too) on this planet and then without exemption disappear again. It's all an unnecessary heap of shit we have to go through. You have the power to make it stop by not breeding. Think about it. Please.

  44. Kristopher Driver Post author

    Lmao dude, you don't need to check barbarian law of medieval Europe to find examples of pricing limbs. Insurance companies have arrays of pay schedules for dismemberment allotments lol

  45. Kristopher Driver Post author

    I can't believe how many people comment on the coffee lol

  46. Piotr M. Salomon Post author

    The dialectics of market and religion seems like one bit Hegel and Marx never really explored historically. This is very interesting.

  47. Benjamin Nourian Post author

    Much more interesting than all his ramblings about debt is the question of why he keeps picking up the coffee cup, holding it for a moment without drinking from it, and then putting it back down. Is he some kind of mental patient?

  48. Robert Howes Post author

    Governments don't "give" money to the people. They pay for goods and services. This puts the coins and notes into circulation. After that, transactions can be taxed. In this way, the governments get their currency back so they can spend it again.

  49. Geoffrey Mclean Post author

    Very in-depth discussion. Thoroughly enjoyed this gentleman's analysis on the matter.

  50. Blair Morpeth Post author

    Can't discredit his argument, hey lets criticize how he drinks his coffee!

  51. Scott Solomon Post author

    If the notion of debt has such power over people, then interest could be the mechanism to calibrate wealth inequality downward. Instead of giving the most indigent people $50 loans at 1,200% interest and winning a Nobel Prize, give them each $1,000 in a Global Retirement Account, then borrow the money from them at 2,400% interest.

  52. Scott Solomon Post author

    I Googled Jeff Sachs Boston Consulting Group and didn't see any connection between Sachs and the Boston Consulting Group

  53. Dark Horse Post author

    A massive global refusal to pay back individual and national debt would be a quick way to redistribute wealth. #defaultnow

  54. KK89 Post author

    "The first 5, 000 years" Funnily enough that's exactly the amount of times he takes tha coffee cup to his hand and places it back without taking a sip.

  55. Nicolas Allen Post author

    It sounds like he is making an argument for the normalization of debt default or trying to equate debt default with debt forgiveness. Obviously, they are not the same. When you borrow, you make a promise to pay. When you break that promise, you simultaneously lie and steal. Default means the promise to pay was a lie, and that you stole the principal, and that you stole from every other debtor as well because defaults drive up the cost of borrowing for everyone else who has to pickup your slack. This is obvious to everyone. What is less obvious is how usury is also a lie and theft. When you overcharge interest, you lie about the cost of capital and you steal the excess interest from the debtors. This is much less visible. What we have occurring now, is the Fed loaning credit to the big primary dealer banks who use it to buy treasuries at a higher interest rate and pocket the difference at the expense of the future taxpayers and to the present enrichment and future ruin of the government. Inflation is also theft. Forgiveness of debt is divine. Default on debt is theft. Usury is demonic.

  56. Debra Legorreta Post author

    If profit is God, as it is with Neoliberals, bankers are the priests and debt is a moral obligation: thou shall pay the bank even if it's ruinous to you, your loved ones, and the planet. So it was in the beginning and so it shall be in the end, in the name of the dollar, the euro, and the holy yen.

  57. Debra Legorreta Post author

    When good neighbors incur "debts" say in neolithic times, that debt had a time stamp. If you don't collect your debt, it's forgotten, i.e. forgiven. I am no longer in your debt if either I keep forgetting and you don't hint at my repaying, or you just don't care and even if I try to repay you say, "forget it, that was a long time ago." Debt had a shelf life and it certainly did not compound.

  58. ⵉⵜⵔⵓⵏⴰⵓⵜ Post author

    I think that the coffee cup is a commentary on the current neo-liberal approach to the free market, and his inability to take a sip from it is a reflection of his deep distaste of it.

  59. charles coryn Post author

    At 5:45 Mr. Graeber states that no one has ever written a history of debt. I suggest he look at this book for an excellent history of debt:
    A World In Debt by Freeman Tilden (1936-12-24) Hardcover – 1774
    5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
    See all 4 formats and editions
    from $296.02
    5 Used from $296.02

  60. octavio araujo Post author

    35:35, he nailed why democracy cannot be given to the masses: "they'll redistribute the land, and break up the monopoly."

  61. My Movers Inc Moving Post author

    The reason we cant get out of this bureaucracy is that the poor always want to drag down the poor. If I say, “this is bullshit we shouldn’t be paying these taxes!” Others say, “you have more than me you should pay them I shouldnt!” Then a poorer yet says “ you both should pay them I shouldnt!” And here we are stuck squabbling and all paying bullshit taxes. I view bureaucracy as a tax on my time: i have to do it and get nothing for it except I dont get jailed (if you can call that a perk)

  62. i suck at life Post author

    david graeber is currently DOMINATING my personal collection of people worth listening to

  63. sundiii99OWS Post author

    Debt is slavery and illegal! Renting is slavery so it’s already illegal! Read “Merchants of Misery; How Corporate America Profits From Poverty”! So debt is illegal!
    Very few large companies are in charge of everything. That’s what makes it easier to demand a new system where all people own all things! That would end world poverty! Socialism will be perfect! Capitalism says “if you want MY FOOD then you must BUY it, and if you can’t afford it then starve to death!” So 36 million do starve to death every year! But if all people own all things, no one can FORCE anyone to BUY something from HIMSELF! It would be free and always should have been so no one starves! Isaiah 55:1. Buy wine and milk, without money, and without price!

  64. Animesh Sharma Post author

    There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There%27s_many_a_slip_%27twixt_the_cup_and_the_lip#targetText=There's%20many%20a%20slip%20'twixt%20the%20cup%20and%20the%20lip&targetText=There's%20many%20a%20slip%20'twixt,things%20can%20still%20go%20wrong.

  65. Gold Laerche Post author


  66. Saagar Singh Sachdev Post author

    David Graeber obviously seems to love people, he in an anthropologist. I am a misanthrope. I hate the fact that if someone praised a possession I have to give it, or if I save someone’s life then I have to look after him, or I am always in some debt or the other. I view it as shackles.
    It kills autonomy.
    If there is one thing you know for sure will be the case in a small “primitive” human community is that, though the community would be autonomous, the individual would not be. And that’s fucked up.

    But debt is shackles.

    And we need it to grow and have meaning, even if the meaning is consumerist.

    I hope that we are hoping to constrict Post Scarcity tech and not going back to a “noble” savage way of being, because fuck that.

  67. David Anderson Post author

    Interesting talk, historically. But microcredit didn't actually blow up in 2008, though. Its still growing strong and has been one of the main REAL helps for the 3rd world. Free plug to kiva.org here: (b/c I give to them) Its a great direct microfinance option for people wanting to encourage small biz-people (particularly women) access to small loans which they almost always pay back. I have no conflict of interest other than I am a donor and think its a good idea. I used to be a trader/venture capitalist/stockbroker and in my humble opinion its the best way to actually help those less fortunate. D.A., J.D., NYC

  68. CASMANWHAT Post author

    He won't drink it because he'll end up in debt if he does.

  69. l l Post author

    It's an extremely biased book that's riddled with errors. Do a quick google search for "Debt The First 5000 Years inaccuracies" to see them.

  70. Hutch black Post author

    I like how I google “coffee is sipped at 59:35” and this pops up. Googles algorithms are predicting humans better and better

  71. James Richardson Post author

    Debt is an inevitability. Where you have an exchange there is always an incentive to delay demand for reciprocation if one is adequately compensated. The invention of debt is far older than 5,000 years. Debt has been around since the first camp fire. It has nothing to do with bankers or morality; debt is timeless.

    Caveman 1: Want some meat?
    Caveman 2: Yes, I’m hungry.
    Caveman 1: Why should I give you anything you filthy scrounger?
    Caveman 2: I’ll pay you back.
    Caveman 1: I don’t trust you’ll pay me back.
    Caveman 2: Ok, then I give you as much tomorrow plus 1/10th.
    Caveman 1: Deal.

  72. Jonathan Jennings Post author

    Just the ability to put be able to put people in debt is where the sin is : CONTROL (money only exists as convention of convenience) Economy is an excuse to control the common man. Its a con to get us to work our lives away.

  73. Michael Lacey Post author

    prof michael hudson talks a lot about the history of debt

  74. Patrick McCormack Post author

    Proverb comes to mind when I hear the word DEBT.

    "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

    Jesus: Why He Had to Die – Fred Harrison at Geophilos

    If might is right, careful as we will…careful as we go.


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