In the beginning was debt. In David Graeber’s sprawling epic on the history of money, he charts its shape-shifting from credit to coinage, to credit again, then bullion and finally to virtual currencies. Throughout, debt is the constant and Graeber makes a ferocious case that it is the lens through which economics might be better defined.
Debt has recently been re-issued, ten years after its original publication in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. That event prompted much soul searching about money and a raft of books purporting to explain how we got into such a mess. Most were fast, facile and now forgotten — but not this one. Graeber dug deep, taking it upon himself to do what economists mostly avoid: trace what money has meant to societies from prehistory to the present day and from the Nambikwara of Brazil to the IMF.
He kicks off with a convincing demolition job on economists’ origin myth that money grew out of the barter. But barter is so obviously unworkable — what would you do when you needed milk but your neighbour with the cow had no need of your roses? — that, to this day, nobody has found anywhere it actually existed. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there has never been such a thing.” Yet the myth is continuously perpetuated in economics textbooks, from Adam Smith to Joseph Stiglitz. Why? Because it positions economics as a discipline whose foremost concern is competitive advantage, facilitated through the division of labour. All deeper human motivation — passion, adventure, curiosity, sex or death — is neatly erased.
Money, Graeber concludes, has “no essence”; it is “something that can be turned into anything.”
In fact, Graeber and Smith aim at the same thing: an economics narrative originating in innate human needs and impulses. By arguing that money derived from innate…