Saturday, August 20, 2011

Debt is the original building block of economic civilization

In the most remote recorded times, [anthropologist David Graeber] argues, it was debt, rather than money, that made society hum. The majority of cuneiform documents we have from ancient Mesopotamia relate to financial matters, and they show that by about 3500 BC the Sumerians had a uniform system of accountancy, the silver shekel. However, Graeber asserts, this denomination was less money in our modern sense (it hardly circulated) than a way for accountants to keep track of who owed what to whom. Debt, in other words, was the basic currency that got business done. Money of the portable kind emerged later, primarily in times and areas of conflict, when grab-and-go was a priority. ...

IDEAS: A lot of people think of barter, rather than debt, as the earliest kind of economy. But you write that pure barter economies never existed?

GRAEBER: As an anthropologist, it’s kind of a professional pet peeve. We’ve been looking for this mythical land of barter for the last 200 years, so we would have found it by now ... The spot trade, where it’s in the moment and you never see each other again, this is the opposite of any kind of exchange in primitive economies. In order to create the idea that life is just a series of exchanges we can all walk away from - a very antisocial notion of what people are about - you have to eradicate all obligations that people have to each other. ...

Credit money is the original form, and then you have this 1,000-year period where coins come mainly out of the building of empires and to pay soldiers, and then when the empires go, the coins do too. In the Middle Ages you go back to credit systems, very sophisticated in some times and places. Then we have another time of bullion money, since the 16th or 17th century, and that’s what’s going away now.
--J. Gabriel Boylan, Boston Globe, on debt trumping barter and money