DEBT: The First 5000 Years

Graeber documents in his book the connection between the creation of coinage, slavery, standing armies, and the state-controlled market, and here offers a historical timeline:

1) Markets appear to have first emerged, in the Near East at least, as a side effect of government administrative systems. Over time, however, the logic of the market became entangled in military affairs, where it became almost indistinguishable from the mercenary logic of Axial Age warfare, and then, finally, that logic came to conquer government itself; to define its very purpose.

2) As a result: everywhere we see the military-coinage-slavery complex emerge, we also see the birth of materialist philosophies. They are materialist, in fact, in both senses of the term: in that they envision a world made up of material forces, rather than divine powers, and in that they imagine the ultimate end of human existence to be the accumulation of material wealth, with ideals like morality and justice being reframed as tools designed to satisfy the masses.

3) Everywhere, too, we find philosophers who react to this by exploring ideas of humanity and the soul, attempting to find a new foundation for ethics and morality.

4) Everywhere some of these philosophers made common cause with social movements that inevitably formed in the face of these new and extraordinarily violent and cynical elites. The result was something new to human history: popular movements that were also intellectual movements, due to the assumption that those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.

5) Everywhere, these movements were first and foremost peace movements, in that they rejected the new conception of violence, and especially aggressive war, as the foundation of politics.

6) Everywhere too, there seems to have been an initial impulse to use the new intellectual tools provided by impersonal markets to come up with a new basis for morality, and everywhere, it foundered. Mohism, with its notion of social profit, flourished briefly and then collapsed. It was replaced by Confucianism, which rejected such ideas outright. We have already seen that reimagining moral responsibility in terms of debt—an impulse that cropped up in both Greece and India—while almost inevitable given the new economic circumstances, seems to prove uniformly unsatisfying. The stronger impulse is to imagine another world where debt—and with it, all other worldly connections—can be entirely annihilated, where social attachments are seen as forms of bondage; just as the body is a prison.

7) Rulers’ attitudes changed over time. At first, most appear to have affected an attitude of bemused tolerance toward the new philosophical and religious movements while privately embracing some version of cynical realpolitik, But as warring cities and principalities were replaced by great empires, and especially, as those empires began to reach the limits of their expansion, sending the military-coinage-slavery complex into crisis, all this suddenly changed. In India, Aśoka tried to re-found his kingdom on Buddhism; in Rome, Constantine turned to the Christians; in China, the Han emperor Wu-Ti (157–87 BC), faced with a similar military and financial crisis, adopted Confucianism as the philosophy of state. Of the three, only Wu Ti was ultimately successful: the Chinese empire endured, in one form or another, for two thousand years, almost always with Confucianism as its official ideology. In Constantine’s case the Western empire fell apart, but the Roman church endured. Aśoka’s project could be said to be the least successful. Not only did his empire fall apart, replaced by an endless series of weaker, usually fragmentary kingdoms, but Buddhism itself was largely driven out of his one-time territories, though it did establish itself much more firmly in China, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia.

8) The ultimate effect was a kind of ideal division of spheres of human activity that endures to this day: on the one hand the market, on the other, religion. To put the matter crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant; that selfishness—or even the self—are illusory, and that to give is better than to receive. If nothing else, it is surely significant that all the Axial Age religions emphasized the importance of charity, a concept that had barely existed before. Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other; both could only arise in institutional contexts that insisted on such pure and single-minded behavior; and both seem to have appeared together wherever impersonal, physical, cash money also appeared on the scene.


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