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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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Immersed in a system that enslaves us to debt and forces us into competition merely to survive, we are unused to expressing our innate desire to give. But when normal breaks down, that desire bursts forth. Many people in the Occupy movement (in which Graeber was deeply involved) have told me that the most amazing thing about it was how people stepped forward, without being paid to or ordered to, to meet whatever needs called to them. A gift economy – even a gift politics – quickly emerged. Even if it devolved into infighting and paralysis, we caught a glimpse of something real. “I saw how human beings are supposed to live,” one Occupier told me. I have seen the same happen after natural disasters disrupt the flow of normalcy: neighbors who ordinarily have no occasion to speak to one another emerge from their houses and everyone helps each other out. The desire to give, to contribute to the general welfare, lies latent in all of us. Could we build an economic system consciously designed to encourage this impulse? Because, as Graeber illustrates in so many vivid examples, the debt-pressure inherent in an interest-based system inhibits it.

Even if Graeber does not venture to offer proposals to address current economic problems, nor a vision of the future, nor a new philosophy of economics, others will surely carry his insights forward into their own work. I read this book with a combination of excitement and dismay: excitement because this is a work of prodigious erudition, profound insight, and vast explanatory power that, if it enters the discourse of economics, will lay to rest once and for all many of its most pernicious fallacies. Dismay, not only because it painfully illuminated the shortcomings of my own recently published book on money, but even more because if I'd only had the chance to absorb and digest it, my own work would have been all the richer. I am sure many economists, social theorists, and political scientists will share this sentiment as they come to terms with this trenchant and highly ramified piece of scholarship.

Charles Eisenstein is an essayist and author of the books Sacred Economics and The Ascent of Humanity . He is a contributor to Shareable, where this article first appeared.

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