This interview of anthropologist David Graeber posted at Naked Capitalism is absolutely fascinating. He offers an alternative narrative to Adam Smith's story that money was created to make more convenient the human tendency to "truck and barter." Graeber argues that money was created instead as a unit of account to track debt. The barter theory emphasizes the use of money in "spot" transactions but, says Graeber, futures transactions were more prevalent and more important in early societies--the need to finance agriculture or import-export activities for example. As evidence for his theory, he says there were accounting records long before there was circulating money.
The interview moves from this into a general discussion of debtor and creditor classes and relationships, for example, how debt traps led to indentured servitude, slavery, and eventually write-offs of debt.
This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.
Graeber says that coinage was popularized and perhaps invented as a way to pay soldiers. The government issued coins to soldiers and made them valuable by requiring other persons to pay taxes using those coins. Taxes, debt, and morality got woven together linguistically and functionally in interesting ways.
Taxes are also key to creating the first markets that operate on cash, since coinage seems to be invented or at least widely popularized to pay soldiers – more or less simultaneously in China, India, and the Mediterranean, where governments find the easiest way to provision the troops is to issue them standard-issue bits of gold or silver and then demand everyone else in the kingdom give them one of those coins back again. Thus we find that the language of debt and the language of morality start to merge.
In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.
How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, “traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!”
Money, in the sense of exact equivalents, seems to emerge from situations like that, but also, war and plunder, the disposal of loot, slavery. In early Medieval Ireland, for example, slave-girls were the highest denomination of currency. And you could specify the exact value of everything in a typical house even though very few of those items were available for sale anywhere because they were used to pay fines or damages if someone broke them.
But once you understand that taxes and money largely begin with war it becomes easier to see what really happened. After all, every Mafiosi understands this. If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. “You owe me, but I’ll cut you a break for now…” Most human beings in history have probably been told this by their debtors. And the crucial thing is: what possible reply can you make but, “wait a minute, who owes what to who here?” And of course for thousands of years, that’s what the victims have said, but the moment you do, you are using the rulers’ language, you’re admitting that debt and morality really are the same thing. That’s the situation the religious thinkers were stuck with, so they started with the language of debt, and then they tried to turn it around and make it into something else.
How best to think about the role of money changes from era to era depending on the circumstances.
One of my inspirations for ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ was Keith Hart’s essay ‘Two Sides of the Coin’. In that essay Hart points out that not only do different schools of economics have different theories on the nature of money, but there is also reason to believe that both are right. Money has, for most of its history, been a strange hybrid entity that takes on aspects of both commodity (object) and credit (social relation.) What I think I’ve managed to add to that is the historical realization that while money has always been both, it swings back and forth – there are periods where credit is primary, and everyone adopts more or less Chartalist theories of money and others where cash tends to predominate and commodity theories of money instead come to the fore. We tend to forget that in, say, the Middle Ages, from France to China, Chartalism was just common sense: money was just a social convention; in practice, it was whatever the king was willing to accept in taxes.
The interview then explored the modern day indicia and implications for transition between the debt and cash aspects of money.
From an historical perspective, it’s pretty ominous. One could go further than the Clinton era, actually – a case could be made that we are seeing now is the same crisis we were facing in the 70s; it’s just that we managed to fend it off for 30 or 35 years through all these elaborate credit arrangements (and of course, the super-exploitation of the global South, through the ‘Third World Debt Crisis’.)
As I said Eurasian history, taken in its broadest contours, shifts back and forth between periods dominated by virtual credit money and those dominated by actual coin and bullion. The credit systems of the ancient Near East give way to the great slave-holding empires of the Classical world in Europe, India, and China, which used coinage to pay their troops. In the Middle Ages the empires go and so does the coinage – the gold and silver is mostly locked up in temples and monasteries – and the world reverts to credit. Then after 1492 or so you have the return world empires again; and gold and silver currency together with slavery, for that matter.
What’s been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we’ve been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.
Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
He shines a harsh light on the current household and sovereign debt and banking crisis, the resulting class tensions, and democracy.
These ‘realities’ are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That’s one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the ‘Third World debt crisis’ – what got called, rather weirdly, the ‘anti-globalization movement’. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).
When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: “Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated.” I find this extraordinarily hopeful.
Read the whole interview here.