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Is Graeber's Debt book accurate or supported by history?

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Freedom4Me73986 posted on Mon, Oct 17 2011 10:15 PM

http://mhpbooks.com/books/debt/?id=308

Claims money was established by kings/states. Denies that barter was the start of money. So far this book has glowing reviews (mostly from socialists) but does anyone who has read it know how accurate his claims are?

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I haven't gotten around to reading the book yet, so I don't know the exact evidence he is drawing upon, but from what I've been able to tell Graeber argues that the use of a medium exchange (in this case silver) first begun in the credit systems of the household economy of the Sumerian temples (which in reality were oligarchies based on force and religious propaganda).  Graeber links this to a development from the 'gift economies' of primitive tribes. 

Possible problems in his thesis is that it may be the case that the Sumerians used silver as a unit of credit in imitation of the use of silver in market exchange (the temples themselves certainly engaged in long-distance trade in precious metals), and that much of what he's saying is based on an expected absence of evidence - which is not evidence of absence.  Combine this with the fact that there is indeed evidence for barter and the use of different media of exchanges arising seemingly independently in different areas of the world, and it seems like there is not a great deal behind his argument.

But as I said I have not looked at the work in detail.

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I am currently reading the book. It's very fascinating stuff. His argument is pretty nuanced and hard to summarize. It looks at debt not only in the traditional economic realm but also in its relation to religion, morality, honor, guilt, sin, and so forth.

Possible problems in his thesis is that it may be the case that the Sumerians used silver as a unit of credit in imitation of the use of silver in market exchange (the temples themselves certainly engaged in long-distance trade in precious metals), and that much of what he's saying is based on an expected absence of evidence - which is not evidence of absence.  Combine this with the fact that there is indeed evidence for barter and the use of different media of exchanges arising seemingly independently in different areas of the world, and it seems like there is not a great deal behind his argument.

Most primitive currencies are what Graeber calls social currencies, which are used in human economies. These are used to arrange marriages, pay blood-debts, and rearrange social relationships. These currencies, however, are almost never used to purchase commodities. Instead, Graeber gives examples of how primitive societies operate on informal credit. He acknowledges that barter sometimes occurs between tribes, but almost never among neighbors. I believe his argument is that precious metals would not arise spontaneously as a medium of exchange because the rich and the temples were the only ones that really wanted it. And they controlled the mines anyway. He notes how the first coinage systems arose at the same time and place as mercenary armies and massive state-warfare (Greece, India, and China). On the other hand, the Phoenician civilization, which was built on trade, was among the last to adopt coinage.

I don't know about accuracy, but it seems pretty plausible to me. I'd be really interested to see someone here read it and hear what their thoughts are.

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Bump - Curious if anyone has finished this or has thoughts about it. 

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