Book Review: Debt: The First 5000 Years (in-progress)

David Graeber’s Wikipedia entry starts with “David Rolfe Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist“. Already you know things are going to be interesting.

I first heard of this book and Graeber in connection to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Apparently he played some part in starting them. He also was involved in the anti-corporate globalization protests of the late 1990s. Then I heard a reference to this book from none other than a Financial Times reporter. Okay, then. If the business press is interested in reading a book on money and debt by an anarchist anthropologist, I’ll bite.

I loved the cover. It’s a very effective illusion – I really thought that the cashier had placed my receipt on the book itself.

The book’s size looks intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. About a quarter to a third of the book is endnotes, and the main text is very straight-forwardedly written, which is a pleasure. Graeber covers a ridiculous amount of ground, but does so fairly thoroughly and entertainingly. Near the end, the quality craps out a little bit, and it seems a bit more hand-wavy. This, along with the rather large number of typos, leads me to suspect that the book was rushed out the door. The book is timely, to say the least, and so I can forgive it those flaws.

I’m marking this as in-progress because I read the book quickly, and I mean to re-read it more carefully and talk in more detail about the book’s contents. Until then, I’ll just say that the book talks about the following:

  • that the State and the Market were born together
  • that world systems have shifted between debt and coinage
  • that coinage and precious metals coincide with war and plunder
  • that debt is related to slavery
  • various non-monetary cultures, and
  • how daily life is a mixture of market relations, small non-monetary debts, and communism.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the current economic crisis.

You can find it on isbn.nu.

If you are intrigued by this review, you can read Graeber’s essay Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, which has some of the ideas of _Debt_ in an embryonic form.

Book Review: Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes

Daniel Everett went to Brazil as a missionary to convert the Pirahã, a tiny (<400 members) Amazonian tribe. Instead, the tribe effectively converted him into an atheist. He then became a professional linguist and anthropologist, and has continued to study the tribe.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is fascinating for its description of the Pirahã culture/language, which is so dramatically different from ours as to radically challenge our notions of language and even what it means to be human. They lack numbers, words for colors, Gods, and creation myths. They don’t have words for “right” or “left” – instead, they might refer to your “upriver” leg. Their tonal language has three vowels and eight consonants (seven for women), although they can whistle and hum the language, useful for hunting and talking while your mouth is full, respectively.

Their language has no recursion, which makes Noam Chomsky cry. One can only legitimately talk about things one has directly experienced, or things that someone who directly experienced them told one. This made Everett’s proselytizing very difficult, since he had never met anyone who had seen Jesus. Because they don’t have numbers, they can’t do arithmetic. At all. They have the simplest kinship system known, no war, and like many hunter-gatherers, no system of private property.

The book also includes some very lively anecdotes about river traders, malaria, etc., but for me the overwhelming value was as an ethnography that made me marvel at the diversity of human culture.

You can find it on isbn.nu.