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Re-Thinking Money: Is Real Wealth Currency? Debt? Or Community?

Our capital-based economy isn't working. David Graeber's <i>Debt: The First 5,000 Years</i> explains why, and points to what real wealth might look like.

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Despite his well-known political radicalism, and the radical insights of his book, Graeber abides by fairly conservative conventions of scholarly decorum. He avoids sweeping generalizations and programmatic statements. While his cross-cultural comparisons of Chinese, Indian, and Occidental economic history certainly lend themselves to metahistorical conclusions, he seems wary of taking his argument to its final step. This circumspection might make the book palatable to a broader spectrum of readers, but it is frustrating to activists who want to do something with it.

Some of the policy implications of Debt are obvious. For the last seventy or eighty years, economic policy has always been predicated on the moral and practical necessity of enforcing the repayment of debts. By showing that there is no such necessity, Graeber opens a wider door to existing proposals for Third World debt amnesty, usury laws, debt forgiveness, principle reduction on underwater mortgages, and so forth.

Less obviously, many radical proposals from the fringes of economics could draw powerful support from Graeber's research. For example, Graeber describes how ancient rulers declared debt jubilees to right the social wrongs – concentration of wealth and loss of liberty – that arose through interest-based lending. A modern-day equivalent might be a negative-interest (demurrage-charged) currency, implemented perhaps as a liquidity tax on bank reserves, which is essentially a slow-motion jubilee. Another important idea in alternative economics is mutual-credit currencies – which bear a striking resemblance to the tally system used in Medieval villages. Graeber laments the incursion of market economics onto social relationships – and there are movements today, such as slow living and reskilling, that seek to reclaim various realms of life from the market economy. Even his call to overthrow the cult of “industriousness” and (by implication) recover a playful, pleasure-positive way of life has an economic analog in the idea of a social wage. If Graeber had made these alternative-economics connections explicit in his book, he might have empowered solutions that reach to the root of our systemic maladies.

I found myself wishing that he would apply the wisdom and intelligence that infuses his scholarship a little beyond it. What political prescriptions might he offer? What personal prescriptions for living in a world still so subject to insidious logic of slavery, violence, usury, and debt? How might we become active change agents on a personal or political level? Graeber seems reluctant to offer much speculation on what the future might bring, saying that the forty years that have elapsed since the resurgence of a credit-based system are nearly insignificant in comparison to the historical span he addresses.

A related shortcoming (I hesitate to use such a word for so breathtaking a work of scholarship) of the book is its hesitance to articulate any general principle of human nature. While he ably debunks the assumption that human economic behavior is motivated primarily by self-interest, he doesn't offer an alternative that might be the foundation of an economic philosophy. Perhaps he would say, “Human beings are complicated,” or, “Human nature is largely an artifact of culture.” True, perhaps, but having surveyed five millennia of economic behavior across so many cultures, mightn't Graeber attempt to discern some unifying, general feature of human economic psychology?

I would like to offer one. Throughout the book, amid lengthy discussion of debt, obligation, honor, credit, and money, there is strikingly little mention of gratitude. He offers a sophisticated appraisal of the “primordial debt” theory of economic philosophy (and of theology); what about a theory of primordial gratitude? Instead of being born into debt (to society, the ancestors, God, the cosmos), perhaps we are born into gratitude: the knowledge of how much we have received, and the desire to give in turn. As I illustrate in Sacred Economics, the assumption of primordial gratitude generates a very different economics: one that need not be coercive in nature, but understands people's natural desire to create and contribute; one that internalizes costs rather than exporting them onto other people and future generations; one that, like gift economies of yore, discourages accumulation and makes wealth and status a function of giving.

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