Debt: The First 5000 Years


I promised someone that I would write a review of this book. That was months ago. My promise is like a debt, except it’s one of those debts that rolls over indefinitely, like the Federal budget deficit.

I make other promises too. My friends from college promise that we’ll get together soon; except we won’t really, because they have kids, I have stuff to do, and we’ll just keep exchanging emails and text messages full of promises until one of us dies.

The US government will presumably never die, which means any debt can carry forward forever. There is good reason for this debt. Modern money is based on government debt, and governments borrow money to finance wars.

In Debt, David Graeber points out that the biggest overseas buyers of US Treasury bonds have been countries that are US military protectorates. To purchase a Treasury bond is to loan money to the US government. But the Treasury bonds depreciate as a result of inflation, which means overseas bondholders end up effectively paying the US government a seigniorage, or tribute tax. For the military protection, I guess.

Speaking of military protection: Consider a spider, because there happens to be one on my ceiling right now.


If you ask your spouse to kill it for you, they pretty much have to. Is it because they owe you a debt? Is your spouse an indentured servant? How is that different from your obligation to do work for an employer?

Obviously your spouse will kill the spider for free, because personal relationships are communistic. On another night you might take out the garbage, or feed the cat, without charge. In a commonwealth, there is no market exchange, and nothing has a price. This is how early human interactions transpired within tribes and families.

Who first affixed price tags to objects and labor? Thieves, according to the author. Burglars and looters trying to assess what they might get for others’ items in the market. Those who captured and sold slaves determined the price of freedom. Today, this is the price you charge when you rent yourself to an employer. Wage labor is not so different from slavery, because capitalist relationships are based on coercion.

We’ve made some big logical leaps here. It may be worth pointing out that the author co-founded the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. He’s also the guy who gave Occupy Wall Street its theme of “We are the 99 percent.”

This post is pretty terrible as far as book reviews go, but that’s what happens when you build an economy based on promises instead of wage labor. Goodnight 🙂