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ESSAY

The first five thousand


years of Debt
Slavery, violence and the history of debt.
By David Graeber

W hat follows is a fragment


of a much larger project of
research on debt and debt
money in human history. The first and
overwhelming conclusion of this project
of the market) no longer absolute. In
fact, it can be precisely quantified. There
is good reason to believe that it was just
this operation that made it possible to
create something like our contemporary
they need (silks, chariot wheels, flamingo
tongues, lapis lazuli) directly from their
subject population; it is much easier to
encourage markets and then buy them.
Early markets often followed armies or
is that in studying economic history, we form of money to begin with, since royal entourages, or formed near palaces
tend to systematically ignore the role of what anthropologists used to refer to as or at the fringes of military posts. This
violence, the absolutely central role of primitive money, the kind that one finds actually helps explain the rather puzzling
war and slavery in creating and shaping in stateless societies (Solomon Island behaviour on the part of royal courts:
the basic institutions of what we now call feather money, Iroquois wampum), was after all, since kings usually controlled
the economy. mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve the gold and silver mines, what exactly
What’s more, origins matter. The blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of was the point of stamping bits of the stuff
violence may be invisible, but it remains relations between people, rather than to with your face on it, dumping it on the
inscribed in the very logic of our economic buy and sell commodities. civilian population, and then demanding
common sense, in the apparently self- For instance, if slavery is debt, then they give it back to you again as taxes?
evident nature of institutions that simply debt can lead to slavery. A Babylonian It only makes sense if levying taxes
would never and could never exist peasant might have paid a handy sum in was really a way to force everyone to
outside of the monopoly of violence – but silver to his wife’s parents to officialise acquire coins, so as to facilitate the rise of
also, the systematic threat of violence – the marriage, but he in no sense owned markets, since markets were convenient
maintained by the contemporary state. her. He certainly could not buy or sell the to have around. However, for our present
Let me start with the institution of mother of his children. But all that would purposes, the critical question is: how
slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In change if he took out a loan. Were he to were these taxes justified? Why did
most times and places, slavery is seen default, his creditors could first remove subjects owe them, what debt were they
as a consequence of war. Sometimes his sheep and furniture, then his house, discharging when they were paid? Here
most slaves actually are war captives, fields and orchards, and finally take his we return again to right of conquest.
sometimes they are not, but almost wife, children, and even himself as debt Actually, in the ancient world, free
invariably, war is seen as the foundation peons until the matter was settled (which, citizens – whether in Mesopotamia,
and justification of the institution. as his resources vanished, of course Greece, or Rome – often did not have to
If you surrender in war, what you became increasingly difficult to do). pay direct taxes for this very reason, but
surrender is your life; your conqueror Debt was the hinge that made it obviously I am simplifying here.
has the right to kill you, and often will. If possible to imagine money in anything If kings claimed to hold the power of
he chooses not to, you literally owe your like the modern sense, and therefore, life and death over their subjects by right
life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, also, to produce what we like to call the of conquest, then their subjects’ debts
infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle market: an arena where anything can be were, also, ultimately infinite; and also,
extract anything he wants, and all debts bought and sold, because all objects are at least in that context, their relations
– obligations – you may owe to others (like slaves) disembedded from their to one another, what they owed to one
(your friends, family, former political former social relations and exist only in another, was unimportant. All that really
allegiances), or that others owe you, are relation to money. existed was their relation to the king.
seen as being absolutely negated. Your But, at the same time the logic of This in turn explains why kings and
debt to your owner is all that now exists. debt as conquest can, as I mentioned, emperors invariably tried to regulate the
This sort of logic has at least two very pull another way. Kings, throughout powers that masters had over slaves, and
interesting consequences, though they history, tend to be profoundly ambivalent creditors over debtors. At the very least
might be said to pull in rather contrary towards allowing the logic of debt to they would always insist, if they had the
directions. First of all, as we all know, get completely out of hand. This is not power, that those prisoners who had
it is another typical – perhaps defining because they are hostile to markets. On the already had their lives spared could no
– feature of slavery that slaves can be contrary, they normally encourage them, longer be killed by their masters. In fact,
bought or sold. In this case, absolute for the simple reason that governments only rulers could have arbitrary power
debt becomes (in another context, that find it inconvenient to levy everything over life and death. One’s ultimate debt

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was to the state; it was the only one that
was truly unlimited, that could make
absolute, cosmic, claims.
The reason I stress this is because this
logic is still with us. When we speak of a
society (French society, Jamaican society)
we are really speaking of people organised
by a single nation state. That is the tacit
model, anyway. Societies are really states,
the logic of states is that of conquest, the
logic of conquest is ultimately identical to
that of slavery. True, in the hands of state
apologists, this becomes transformed into
a notion of a more benevolent social debt.
Here there is a little story told, a kind
of myth. We are all born with an infinite
debt to the society that raised, nurtured,
fed and clothed us, to those long dead who
invented our language and traditions,
to all those who made it possible for us
to exist. In ancient times we thought
we owed this to the gods (it was repaid
in sacrifice, or, sacrifice was really just
the payment of interest – ultimately,
it was repaid by death). Later the debt
A new way to pay the national debt: Via Wikimedia Commons.
was adopted by the state, itself a divine
institution, with taxes substituted for states nor markets can exist without the for other valuables just about anywhere,
sacrifice, and military service for one’s constant threat of force. with no questions asked.
debt of life. One might ask, then, what is the As a result, one can see the last 5000
Money is simply the concrete form alternative? years of human history as the history
of this social debt, the way that it is of a kind of alternation. Credit systems
managed. Keynesians like this sort of Towards a history of virtual money seem to arise, and to become dominant,
logic. So do various strains of socialist, in periods of relative social peace, across
social democrats, even crypto-fascists Here I can return to my original point: networks of trust, whether created by
like Auguste Comte (the first, as far as I that money did not originally appear states or, in most periods, transnational
am aware, to actually coin the phrase in this cold, metal, impersonal form. institutions, whilst precious metals
social debt). But the logic also runs through It originally appears in the form of a replace them in periods characterised by
much of our common sense: consider for measure, an abstraction, but also as a widespread plunder. Predatory lending
instance, the phrase, “to pay one’s debt relation (of debt and obligation) between systems certainly exist at every period,
to society,” or, “I felt I owed something human beings. It is important to note that but they seem to have had the most
to my country,” or, “I wanted to give historically it is commodity money that damaging effects in periods when money
something back.” Always, in such cases, has always been most directly linked to was most easily convertible into cash.
mutual rights and obligations, mutual violence. As one historian put it, “bullion So as a starting point to any attempt
commitments – the kind of relations that is the accessory of war, and not of peaceful to discern the great rhythms that define
genuinely free people could make with trade.” [Geoffrey W Gardiner, The Primacy the current historical moment, let
one another – tend to be subsumed into of trade debts in the development of money, in me propose the following breakdown
a conception of society where we are all Randall Wray (ed), Credit and state theories of Eurasian history according to the
equal only as absolute debtors before of money: The contributions of A Mitchell alternation between periods of virtual
the (now invisible) figure of the king, Innes. Cheltenham: Elgar, 2004.] and metal money.
who stands in for your mother, and by The reason is simple. Commodity
extension, humanity. money, particularly in the form of gold Age of the first agrarian empires (3500-
What I am suggesting, then, is that and silver, is distinguished from credit 800 BCE): Virtual credit money
while the claims of the impersonal money most of all by one spectacular
market and the claims of society are often feature: it can be stolen. Since an ingot Our best information on the origins of
juxtaposed – and certainly have had a of gold or silver is an object without a money goes back to ancient Mesopotamia,
tendency to jockey back and forth in all pedigree, throughout much of history but there seems no particular reason to
sorts of practical ways – they are both bullion has served the same role as the believe matters were radically different
ultimately founded on a very similar contemporary drug dealer’s suitcase in Pharaonic Egypt, Bronze Age China,
logic of violence. Neither is this a mere full of dollar bills, as an object without a or the Indus Valley. The Mesopotamian
matter of historical origins that can be history that will be accepted in exchange economy was dominated by large public
brushed away as inconsequential: neither

Independent World report NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009 47


much leading to popular uprisings, but to Coinage, certainly, was not invented
The credit systems of common people abandoning the cities and to facilitate trade. The Phoenicians,
settled territory entirely and becoming consummate traders of the ancient
the Near East did not semi-nomadic bandits and raiders. It soon world, were among the last to adopt it.
crumble under commercial became traditional for each new ruler to It appears to have been first invented to
wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and pay soldiers, probably first of all by the
competition; they were declare a general amnesty or freedom, so rulers of Lydia in Asia Minor to pay their
destroyed by Alexander’s that all bonded labourers could return to Greek mercenaries. Carthage, another
their families. It is significant here that great trading nation, only started minting
armies – armies that the first word for freedom known in any coins very late, and then explicitly to pay
human language, the Sumerian amarga, its foreign soldiers.
required half a ton of silver literally means return to mother. Biblical Throughout antiquity one can
bullion per day in wages. prophets instituted a similar custom, continue to speak of what Geoffrey
the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all Ingham has dubbed the military-coinage
institutions (temples and palaces) whose debts were similarly cancelled. This is complex. He may have been better to call
bureaucratic administrators effectively the direct ancestor of the New Testament it a military-coinage-slavery complex, since
created money of account by establishing notion of redemption. the diffusion of new military technologies
a fixed equivalent between silver and the As economist Michael Hudson (Greek hoplites, Roman legions) was always
staple crop, barley. Debts were calculated has pointed out, it seems one of the closely tied to the capture and marketing
in silver, but silver was rarely used in misfortunes of world history that the of slaves. The other major source of
transactions. Instead, payments were institution of lending money at interest slaves was debt: now that states no longer
made in barley or in anything else that disseminated out of Mesopotamia without, periodically wiped the slates clean, those
happened to be handy and acceptable. for the most part, being accompanied by not lucky enough to be citizens of the
Major debts were recorded on cuneiform its original checks and balances. major military city-states – who were
tablets kept as sureties by both parties to generally protected from predatory
the transaction. Axial age (800 BCE–600 CE): Coinage lenders – were fair game.
Certainly, markets did exist. Prices and metal bullion The credit systems of the Near East
of certain commodities that were not did not crumble under commercial
produced within temple or palace This was the age that saw the emergence competition; they were destroyed by
holdings, and thus not subject to of coinage, as well as the birth, in China, Alexander’s armies – armies that required
administered price schedules, would tend India and the Middle East, of all major half a ton of silver bullion per day in wages.
to fluctuate according to the vagaries world religions. The phrase axial age The mines where the bullion was produced
of supply and demand. But, most actual was originally coined by Karl Jaspers were generally worked by slaves. Military
acts of everyday buying and selling, to describe the relatively brief period campaigns in turn ensured an endless
particularly those that were not carried between 800 BCE–200 BCE in which, flow of new slaves. Imperial tax systems,
out between absolute strangers, appear he believed, just about all the main as noted, were largely designed to force
to have been made on credit. philosophical traditions we are familiar their subjects to create markets, so that
Ale women, or local innkeepers, served with today arose simultaneously in China, soldiers – and also, of course, government
beer, for example, and often rented India, and the Eastern Mediterranean. officials – would be able to use that bullion
rooms; customers ran up a tab; normally, Here, I am using it in Lewis Mumford’s to buy anything they wanted. The kind
the full sum was dispatched at harvest more expansive use of the term as the of impersonal markets that once tended
time. Market vendors presumably acted period that saw the birth of all existing to spring up between societies, or at the
as they do in small-scale markets in world religions, stretching roughly fringes of military operations, now began
Africa, or Central Asia, today, building up from the time of Zoroaster to that of to permeate society as a whole.
lists of trustworthy clients to whom they Mohammed. However tawdry their origins, the
could extend credit. The habit of money From the Warring States period in creation of new media of exchange –
at interest also originates in Sumer – it China, to fragmentation in India, and coinage appeared almost simultaneously
remained unknown, for example, in Egypt. to the carnage and mass enslavement in Greece, India, and China – appears to
Interest rates, fixed at twenty percent, that accompanied the expansion (and have had profound intellectual effects.
remained stable for 2000 years. This was later, dissolution) of the Roman Empire, Some have even gone so far as to argue that
not a sign of government control of the it was a period of spectacular creativity Greek philosophy was itself made possible
market: at this stage, institutions like this throughout most of the world, but of by conceptual innovations introduced by
were what made markets possible. almost equally spectacular violence. coinage. The most remarkable pattern,
This, however, led to some serious Coinage, which allowed for the actual though, is the emergence, in almost
social problems. In years with bad use of gold and silver as a medium of the exact times and places where one
harvests especially, peasants would start exchange, also made possible the creation also sees the early spread of coinage,
becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, of markets in the now more familiar, of what were to become modern world
and would have to surrender their farms impersonal sense of the term. Precious religions: prophetic Judaism, Christianity,
and, ultimately, family members, in debt metals were also far more appropriate Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism,
bondage. Gradually, this condition seems for an age of generalised warfare, for the Taoism, and eventually, Islam.
to have come to a social crisis – not so obvious reason that they could be stolen. While the precise links are yet to be

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fully explored, in certain ways, these as their clearing houses. The Church,
religions appear to have arisen in direct meanwhile, provided a legal framework, Religions began to
reaction to the logic of the market. To enforcing strict controls on the lending
put the matter somewhat crudely: if one of money at interest and prohibitions on take over the market
relegates a certain social space simply to debt bondage. systems. Everything from
the selfish acquisition of material things, The real nerve centre of the medieval
it is almost inevitable that soon someone world economy, though, was the Indian international trade to
else will come to set aside another Ocean, which along with the Central the organisation of local
domain in which to preach that, from the Asia caravan routes connected the great
perspective of ultimate values, material civilisations of India, China, and the fairs increasingly came
things are unimportant, and selfishness – Middle East. Here, trade was conducted
or even the self – illusory. through the framework of Islam, which
to be carried out through
not only provided a legal structure social networks defined
The Middle Ages (600 CE–1500 CE): The highly conducive to mercantile activities
return to virtual credit money (while absolutely forbidding the lending and regulated by religious
of money at interest), but allowed for authorities.
If the axial age saw the emergence of peaceful relations between merchants
complementary ideals of commodity over a remarkably large part of the globe, they could be monitored. The result was
markets and universal world religions, allowing the creation of a variety of a flowering of institutions premised on a
the Middle Ages were the period in which sophisticated credit instruments. much higher degree of social trust.
those two institutions began to merge. I am Actually, Western Europe was, as in so
here relegating most of what is generally many things, a relative late-comer in this Age of European empires (1500-
referred to as the Dark Ages in Europe regard: most of the financial innovations 1971):The return of precious metals
into the earlier period, characterised by that reached Italy and France in the
predatory militarism and the consequent eleventh and twelfth centuries had been With the advent of the great European
importance of bullion: the Viking raids, in common use in Egypt or Iraq since empires – Iberian, then North Atlantic
and the famous extraction of danegeld the eighth or ninth centuries. The word – the world saw both a reversion to
from England in the 800s, might be seen cheque, for example, derives from the mass enslavement, plunder, and wars
as one of the last manifestations of an age Arab sakk, and appeared in English only of destruction, and the consequent
where predatory militarism went hand around 1220 AD. rapid return of gold and silver bullion
and hand with hoards of gold and silver The case of China is even more as the main form of currency. Historical
bullion. complicated: the Middle Ages there began investigation will probably end up
Religions began to take over the with the rapid spread of Buddhism, which, demonstrating that the origins of these
market systems. Everything from while it was in no position to enact laws transformations were more complicated
international trade to the organisation of or regulate commerce, did quickly move than we ordinarily assume.
local fairs increasingly came to be carried against local usurers by its invention of Some of this was beginning to
out through social networks defined and the pawn shop – the first pawn shops happen even before the conquest of
regulated by religious authorities. This being based in Buddhist temples as a way the New World. One of the main factors
enabled, in turn, the return throughout of offering poor farmers an alternative of the movement back to bullion, for
Eurasia of various forms of virtual credit to the local usurer. Before long, though, example, was the emergence of popular
money. the state reasserted itself, as the state movements during the early Ming
In Europe, where all this took place always tends to do in China. But as it did dynasty, in the fifteenth and sixteenth
under the aegis of Christendom, coinage so, it not only regulated interest rates centuries, that ultimately forced the
was only sporadically, and unevenly, and attempted to abolish debt peonage, government to abandon not only paper
available. Prices after 800 AD were it moved away from bullion entirely money but any attempt to impose its own
calculated largely in terms of an old by inventing paper money. All this currency. This led to the reversion of the
Carolingian currency that no longer was accompanied by the development, vast Chinese market to an uncoined silver
existed (it was actually referred to at the again, of a variety of complex financial standard. Since taxes were also gradually
time as imaginary money), but ordinary instruments. commuted into silver, it soon became the
day-to-day buying and selling was carried All this is not to say that this period did more or less official Chinese policy to try
out mainly through other means. not see its share of carnage and plunder to bring as much silver into the country
One common expedient, for example, (particularly during the great nomadic as possible, so as to keep taxes low and
was the use of tally-sticks, notched invasions) or that coinage was not, in prevent new outbreaks of social unrest.
pieces of wood that were broken in many times and places, an important The sudden enormous demand for
two as records of debt, with half being medium of exchange. Still, what really silver had effects across the globe. Most
kept by the creditor, half by the debtor. characterises the period appears to be a of the precious metals looted by the
Such tally-sticks were still in common movement in the other direction. Most of conquistadors and later extracted by the
use in much of England well into the the medieval period saw money largely Spanish from the mines of Mexico and
sixteenth century. Larger transactions delinked from coercive institutions. Potosi (at almost unimaginable cost in
were handled through bills of exchange, Money changers, one might say, were human lives) ended up in China. These
with the great commercial fairs serving invited back into the temples, where global scale connections that eventually

Independent World report NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009 49


indeed it remains today. The fact that we of global social movements (the alter-
For much of human history, have cast such institutions in a language globalisation movement), which
of freedom does not mean that what we effectively destroyed the moral authority
systems of virtual money now think of as economic freedom does of institutions like the IMF and left many
were designed and regulated not ultimately rest on a logic that has for of them very close to bankruptcy, and
most of human history been considered now by the current banking crisis and
to ensure that nothing the very essence of slavery. global economic collapse.
like capitalism could ever While the new age of virtual money
Current Era (1971 onwards): The has only just begun and the long-term
emerge to begin with – at empire of debt consequences are as yet entirely unclear,
we can already say one or two things. The
least not as it appears in The current era might be said to have first is that a movement towards virtual
its present form, with most been initiated on August 15, 1971, money is not in itself, necessarily, an
when the US president, Richard Nixon, insidious effect of capitalism. In fact, it
of the world’s population officially suspended the convertibility might well mean exactly the opposite.
placed in a condition that of the dollar into gold and effectively For much of human history, systems
created the current floating currency of virtual money were designed and
would in many other periods regimes. We have returned, at any rate, regulated to ensure that nothing like
of history be considered to an age of virtual money, in which capitalism could ever emerge to begin
consumer purchases in wealthy countries with – at least not as it appears in its
tantamount to slavery. rarely involve even paper money, and present form, with most of the world’s
national economies are driven largely by population placed in a condition that
developed across the Atlantic, Pacific, consumer debt. would in many other periods of history
and Indian Oceans have of course been It is in this context that we can talk be considered tantamount to slavery. The
documented in great detail. The crucial about the financialisation of capital, second point is to underline the absolutely
point is that the delinking of money from whereby speculation in currencies and crucial role of violence in defining the
religious institutions, and its relinking financial instruments becomes a domain very terms by which we imagine both
with coercive ones (especially the state), unto itself, detached from any immediate society and markets – in fact, many of our
was here accompanied by an ideological relation with production or even most elementary ideas of freedom.
reversion to metalism. The myth of barter commerce. This is of course the sector A world less entirely pervaded by
and commodity theories of money was of that has entered into crisis today. violence would rapidly begin to develop
course developed in this period. What can we say for certain about this other institutions. Finally, thinking
Credit, in this context, was on the whole new era? So far, very, very little. Thirty about debt outside the twin intellectual
an affair of states that were themselves or forty years is nothing in terms of the straitjackets of state and market opens up
run largely by deficit financing, a form scale we have been dealing with. Clearly, exciting possibilities. For instance, we can
of credit which was, in turn, invented this period has only just begun. Still, the ask: in a society in which that foundation
to finance increasingly expensive wars. foregoing analysis, however crude, does of violence had finally been yanked away,
Internationally the British Empire was allow us to begin to make some informed what exactly would free men and women
steadfast in maintaining the gold standard suggestions. owe each other? What sort of promises
through the nineteenth and early Historically, as we have seen, ages of and commitments should they make to
twentieth centuries, and great political virtual, credit money have also involved each other?
battles were fought in the United States creating some sort of overarching Let us hope that everyone will
over whether the gold or silver standard institutions – Mesopotamian sacred someday be in a position to start asking
should prevail. kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon such questions. At times like this, you
This was also, obviously, the period Law – that place some sort of controls never know. �
of the rise of capitalism, the industrial on the potentially catastrophic social
revolution, representative democracy, consequences of debt. Almost invariably,
and so on. What I am trying to do here they involve institutions (usually not
is not to deny their importance, but to strictly coincident to the state, usually
provide a framework for seeing such larger) to protect debtors.
familiar events in a less familiar context. So far the movement this time has
It makes it easier, for instance, to been the other way around: starting
detect the ties between war, capitalism, with the 1980s we have begun to see the
and slavery. The institution of wage creation of the first effective planetary
labour, for instance, has historically administrative system, operating through David Graeber teaches anthropology
emerged from within that of slavery the International Monetary Fund, World at Goldsmiths, University of London. He
(the earliest wage contracts we know Bank, corporations and other financial
is currently working on a project on the
of, from Greece to the Malay city states, institutions, largely in order to protect
the interests of creditors. However, this history of debt. An earlier version of this
were actually slave rentals), and it has
also tended, historically, to be intimately apparatus was very quickly thrown into article appeared in the June 2009 issue of
tied to various forms of debt peonage – as crisis, first by the very rapid development Mute magazine.

50 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009 Independent World report