up:: Books

The First 5000 Years





  • [status:: read]
  • [rating:: 5]
  • [added:: 2023-02-13]
  • [started:: 2023-03-02]
  • [read:: 2023-04-13]


This was a really rich and engaging read. It was my first encounter with academic anthropology and the way Graeber laid it out was intriguing. It was amazing how he was able to draw on a wealth of stories spanning all history to construct what life looked like for people living thousands of years ago. The content of the book was fascinating as well. It was intriguing to go to the roots of what I took for granted. Seeing a historical perspective of capitalism and the markets was fascinating and had many mind-blown moments. There is a lot to digest when it comes to the ramifications of the book. I found it especially interesting whenever the author talked about the historical Christian theology on debt.


  • “No example of the barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests there has never been such a thing.” (p. 29)
  • Actual bartering systems only exist in societies where money is prevalent but is unavailable for a time.
  • the first recorded mention of the word “freedom” is in ancient Sumer. It references the cancellation of debt, the restoration of land and the return of debt slaves to their family.
  • “Primordial debt”: the idea that every human was born with a debt to humanity, ‘the universe’, nature or ‘society’. In a way, this is the founding myth of national states. We pay our debt to society through taxes, our debt to our ancestors by becoming ancestors ourselves.
    • But debt requires ‘seperation’ (we are different to the other person of the transaction) and ‘equality’ (there is a way to pay this back). It is silly to inagine ourselves as seperate from ‘the universe’ or, even crazier as equal with it? Who can turn to ‘the universe’ and quantify the debt we owe it? In a way, seeing ourselves as seperate from ‘society’ might be the most presumptuous thing we can do. And how do we dare to set how much repayment is fair for it?
  • Maybe our language of viewing humanity based on commercial interactions is flawed. “Gifts make slaves” the inuit said. Yes, we have the tendency to calculate constantly but we can also choose to turn that off and give without seeing the other person in our debt.
  • Communism: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
    • Communism is the foundation of all human sociability.
    • Calculating the rate of each interaction is inefficient.
    • “Baseline communism”: Unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is great enough (a person drowning), or the cost considered rationale enough (asking for a cigarette), the principle of “to each to their abilities” holds true.
    • This is not really reciprocity: it’s about that the other would do the same for me, not that they will do it
  • Exchange: the expectation that the gift will be repaid. Such a repayment ends the relationship. So when wanting to keep social connections, there is an endless cycle of gift-giving (couples inviting each other for dinner, mates buying each ‘the next beer’)
  • Hierarchy: a certain repeated becomes customary, that defines the actor’s essential nature. Villages giving gifts to the king are expected to keep doing so, which turns into tribute. A generous friend repeatedly paying for things will be expected to do so in the future, cancelling reciprocity.
  • Debt is a part of Exchange. It is between equals and had the possibility of being restored.
  • Contrary to our imagination about the the origin of “Western” society, in Ancient Greece women had to wear veils while in Assyria and Persia they walked free
  • Money introduced a ‘democratisation of desire’. Money is undiscriminating, the same money used by the aristocrats is used by the fisherman
  • The big change from human to commercial economies is the change from patronage to debt.
    • Loans imply no ongoing responsibility of the creditor
    • Loans assume a formal equality between creditor and contractee
  • in the ancient world, to be ‘free’ meant first and foremost to not be a slave. Freedom in that sense meant power. Power over property, which often were other people.
  • One man’s right is another man’s obligation. My right to freedom of speech is your obligation to not punish me when I speak.
  • The “Axial Age”: 800 BC to 600 AD. The time in which all major philosophical tendencies and religions were birthed.
    • This correlates to the time in which coinage was first invented and also the places where it was used – the Yellow River in China, the Ganges Valley in India and the Aegean Sea.
    • This was also a time of great violence. Armies as professionals started appearing during this time. Greek mercenaries we’re highly effective and sought after. Likely they were paid with a part of the spoils – which is how Gold and Silver ended up in the hands of the common people, leading to the adoption of coinage.
    • Coinage introduced a rational profit-based thinking. It reduced the complex web of relationship-based transactions found in human economies to an impersonal calculus of profit and loss.
    • Out of this religions and philosophies were spawned, each attempting to engage with what is ‘profitable’ in a moral sense. But the language employed is still that of the market.
      • Initially there are ‘materialist’ ideas, seeking ways to maximise profit
      • other philosophies spawn as a reaction, rejecting profit-maximising and war
  • A lot of the tension is between keeping debt or a free peasantry. Land owners needed debt peons to work their lands. But that meant that there were few free sons to be available for the army. Also there was always the risk of a peasant rebellion. Much of the tensions revolves around this problem of debt peonage and standing armies. Coinage in Roman times was introduced as an attempt of a solution to this problem.
    • Eventually, the circles of Rome can be attributed to the tension. Armies needed coins which needed to be extracted by slaves. The downfall of Rome was a debt crisis where many of the free peasantry was in debt peonage, needing Rome to rely on Germanic mercenaries.
  • a driving force for the New World conquistadores ruhtlessness was their own indebtedness
    • “the frantic urgency of having to convert everything around oneelf into money, and rage and inidgnation at having been reduced to the sort of person who would do so”
  • Paper money was debt money, and debt money was war money and this has always been the case.
  • The secret scandal of capitalism is that at no point is has been organised around free labour.
  • The US dollar is the only currency to buy and sell petroleum in
  • US dollar being the world’s ‘reserve money’ is like a global tax
  • historically, impersonal markets originate in theft
    • after all, who was first to look at a house full of things and ask “what can I get for this”

Summary of the history ‘the market’

  1. Markets appear to have started as a side effect to government systems. Over time the logic of the market became entangled in military affairs, leading to define the very purpose of government itself.
  2. The military-coinage-slavery complex spawns materialist philosophies. They promote maximising wealth and rejecting the spiritual realm.
  3. As a reaction, we see thoughts explore other ways to envision the soul and humanity.
  4. These thoughts banded together into popular movements against the cynical and violent elites. Popular movements were also intellectual movements about the nature of reality.
  5. These new movements were first and foremost peace movements, rejecting violence and especially war as the foundation of politics.
  6. Using the logic of impersonal markets as the basics for morality initially floundered everywhere. It’s unsatisfying to image a morality based on debt.
  7. Rulers initially were bemused by those new ideas but as the military-coinage-slavery floundered, these ideas started to be embraced by rulers. Asoka tried to re-found his kingdom on Buddhism.
  8. The ultimate effect of this dynamic is the division of spheres of human activity: the market on the one hand, religion on the other. Wherever there is a space for the selfish acquisition of things, there will be someone preaching that material things in the end are unimportant. Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary. One concept could only exist with the other.