Monday, December 19, 2016

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

The history of "debt" predates the introduction of money. Even today, people will often say they are "indebted" to you due to a favor or other action performed. In Debt, David Graeber explores the history of debt and the origin of money. He presents a view different than the commonly described story. He wasn't able to find viable cases of money rises out of the "barter economy." Instead, he found it rising more out of the "human" economy. People would become indebted to others due to an accident, murder or taking of a spouse. The monetary instruments would come about as a means to satisfy these debts (and help but an end to the cycle of endless retribution.)

The evolution of standardized currency allowed greater exchanges with unknown people. (Now the trust was placed in the type of currency rather than the individual person.) Standardization also better facilitated warfare and plunder.

Slavery was also tied to debt and money. Slavery initially arose in a somewhat positive context. Rather than kill an enemy, they could be enslaved for a time period. Slaves could live relatively normal lives and in some cultures eventually obtain freedom. Slavery became common in societies that undertook large scale projects. Eventually, it fell out of favor in Europe of the middle ages. However, with the plantation demands of the new world, there was a need for increased labor. Slavery had to be "forced" back upon a society that had given up on it. To do this, a racist story had to be introduced to portray the slaves as less than human. As long as people bought this tale, slavery could exist. However, as people realized they had been duped (and the need for slave labor decreased), slavery fell out of favor. It was eventually abolished, yet we are still living the legacy of the marginalization of a group of people and the culture that grew out of it.

Wage labor also grew out of the needs of large scale industry. It bares many similarities to the slave system. The key difference is that people are free to move around and "move up." However, in practice, most people remain wage laborers for their lives. They may move from job to job, yet these jobs tend to be very similar to each other. They are required to do work to pay off their many debts (houses, credit cards, etc.) The many transactions performed also tend to be done in a more anonymous fashion. People rarely communicate directly with an individual holding their debt or producing their product. Debt has become a unifying instrument of an anonymous society.

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