How can we make sense of governments around the world taking on more debt during the COVID-19 pandemic when beforehand they were repulsed by the concept of going into debt? Step one is to look at our assumptions of debt.
About a decade ago David Graeber wrote a book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years which explores the history and cultural practices around debt. If you don’t have time to read the whole book you can watch a summation of the main points in the talk he gives (embedded above). Trust me, it’s worth your time to at least watch his presentation.
While the “national debt” has been the concern du jour of many economists, commentators and politicians, little attention is ever paid to the historical significance of debt.
For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the past five thousand years, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers; whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place.
Enter anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (July, ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2), which uses these struggles to show that the history of debt is also a history of morality and culture.