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Debt - the first 5,000 years - David Graeber

debtMy review on Amazon (*****)

There are a number of insightful reviews on Amazon about this book. This one is from the perspective of a christian pastor looking for a take on the modern slavery to money and debt and how that relates to the promise of wealth in Christ and His (very negative) view of money.

The Author shows very clearly that money is a human construction and not a "given" of the created order. He also persuasively argues that cultures which are strangers to money are nevertheless able to share and exchange natural and manufactured goods efficiently without having to keep records of debts or barter. Calculations of "price" or value are not explicitly made because they are damaging to trust and the sense of belonging to the community. Relationships are more like "covenant" relationships than contractual relations.

He mentions an extreme case where a Maori glutton abuses the right to ask successful fishermen for the prime portion of their catch so often that he becomes a nuisance. Rather than introduce the idea of a "fair price" or giving a flat refusal and so destroy their system of justice they take the simpler expedient of murdering him - considering his death to be a lesser evil than weakening the community of trust between themselves!

However, concepts of precise valuation are known in such cultures when warfare is involved or when trading with "outsiders". After successfully pillaging an enemy, there needs to be a system of valuation to share the spoils "fairly". In the same way, travelling merchants are aliens without a stake in the community. Trading may well benefit the group but but it must on a basis of equality of exchange so that the strangers do not impoverish the home culture by trickery.

A reliable coinage helps deal with both problems. Even paper money can fill the vacuum of trust if both parties believe in it as a store of value and, therefore, as a medium of exchange.

Hence the power of money grows in a context of violence and suspicion.

The rise of debt in particular begins with a special kind of contract. A king or lord wishes to gather a warband and equip them with weaponry, horses, boats etc. He pays the investors and adventurers with promises to share the wealth obtained by his war. Those promises to pay become the basis of a system of debt and credit. In the same way, a merchant adventurer is convinced he would be able to make a journey which will yield a high return in terms of wealth gained and he raises funds by issuing shares or bonds. Hence war, exploration and conquest become a debt-fuelled search for profit.

The Christian disciple who is challenged by Jesus "to make friends using unrighteous Mammon" and see whoever he comes across as his neighbour will recognise that this account of the rise of money and credit makes much more sense than the myths of economics and the phoney theories of justice constructed on those myths.

The author points out that religious systems which see obligations to Gods or ancestors as "debts" have a tendency to impoverish and even enslave their adherents. As proverbs says 22:7 The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. And when the debt is life itself the service ends only with death.

The revelation of redemption through Christ's death includes the idea of being set free from debt bondage into what? A covenantal sense of obligation certainly but also a freedom from the calculation or imposition of precise debts.

Read this with Ellul's "Money and Power" and you will begin to have the tools to think through your own relationship to the ruling principalities and powers of our times.