TLDR Version – Great book, definitely worth reading. Despite essentially being a huge failure.
My take on Chapter 12 will follow, but since it’s the final chapter of the book, I’m starting with a book review. See Chapter 12 is (ideally anyways) where all the various ideas and bits and pieces Graeber has been going through are brought together and placed into context with the real present-day world. So, before I get to Chapter 12, I have to look at what comes before.
General impressions? It’s quite readable. Graeber has such an easy conversational style that despite the educational nature of the book, it’s still compelling. A couple of times the mask slips (in this case, probably slips back on) and you realize that d00d is a university professor. His love of the word “efflorescence” for example. Efflorescence? Doesn't that mean "to deflower"? It's eff-something anyways.
One thing Graeber does very well throughout the book is to present and effectively support a bunch of ideas and concepts which are in direct opposition to conventional wisdom. The famous example is The Myth of Barter, which is how I was first introduced to this book. So when you read these bits, you suddenly feel smarter – as if you now have some secret bits of information not available to the general public. A batch of little assisted epiphany moments. These moments themselves are worth the price of admission.
Which is good because otherwise the book is a failure. You see, it’s not an almanac or reference document. Those new ideas and concepts that Graeber gives us, they are as part of a bigger picture. Graeber first gets us to address a bunch of misconceptions we have, about things that a lot of us have always taken for granted. This part goes well. Then he tries to get us to understand accept the resulting implications. That’s asking too much of readers. People are basically lazy. Especially when dealing with overhauling their world-views. Trust me, I am an expert on lazy.
Graeber claims that his actual goal is fostering dialog and getting people to consider options and alternatives for the future that were previously verboten. He’s prompted dialog for certain, moar words have been written about Chapter 12 than are in it, but it’s all of teh flawed old mode of seeing the world and framed almost entirely in the “language of the market”. And anyways, even if he doesn’t have the actual solutions, claiming that one is needed (and especially in teh detailed and persuasive way Graeber does this) is a partisan take on its own. Anyways, I am personally quite sympathetic to the arguments he’s made, and I’m still sorting things out in my head. I guess that makes me one of the people he’s successfully reached – but I’m not sure if I am moar BURN SHIT DOWN after reading Debt than I was before.
Okay, on to teh specifics. The first half of the book is anthropology. He argues, based on empirical observations of societies that little or no exposure to the rest of the world, that the Myth of Barter as the origins of money is false. That money itself was always credit-based or “fiat money”. That the actual origins lie in accounting systems developed by large central bureaucracies for accounting purposes. That, a bunch of other stuff. Anyways the main point (from my understanding of the book) is that Debt precedes Dollars. That our understanding of money has to be updated to take into account that at its root, money is not about precious metals, but about obligations and promises.
Added to that is another concept – the idea of a “human economy” as he calls it. A system of Debt that is based on different rules than traditional exchange or barter. With the primary basis being that human beings have value and worth beyond quantification and that there are some things where Debt is incurred in a fashion that it can never be repaid – and that tokens are used to express the magnitude of this Debt, but in no way make up some sort of “recompense” for it. Bridewealth and blood penalties are used to illustrate this concept.
He gets us to start thinking about the way people interact with one another in terms of rank or the presence/absence of hierarchy. That exchange requires a sort of equality between parties and that this sometimes requires willfully ignoring obvious power disparities. That inherent contradictions such as these are present in all these types of relations.
These ideas are then illustrated by wandering through five thousand years of history, which I will fast forward through. The birth of coins marks the start of Empires and exploitative war. Due to the need to provision armies. Besides, chaos and violence is not particularly amenable to reputation based economies. And coins enable pillaging. He describes this as the military-coinage-slavery-complex. Then comes a period after the collapse of the Great Empires where global institutions come into play. These alleviate a lot of suffering and we return to a more credit based economy. Then the Capitalist Empires develop and we’re back to gold and slavery. And the finally, we get to Chapter 12 when Nixon unilaterally ends the Gold Standard.
Chapter 12 is not a stand-alone argument. This is evident by the number of times he references concepts from earlier in the book. It is evident in Chapter 8 when he explains what this is exactly what he intends to do over the next bunch of pages. It is evident because it is Chapter 12 and not a separate book altogether. Which is why it’s getting a separate post.