An Interview With David Graeber: Debt’s History, Implications, and Critical Perspective

Alex Bradshaw in No Borders:

ScreenHunter_04 Sep. 18 18.41 David Graeber has spent the last decade challenging the line drawn between scholar and activist. While many academics fancy themselves “radicals,” the anthropologist professor has been an active participant in anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups and organizing. Graeber has used his skill-set as an anthropologist to compile ethnographic data—far away from the classroom and campus, to be sure—regarding the contemporary anarchist movement in North America; the results were published in 2009 as Direct Action: An Ethnography. David Graeber is the author of several books, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and, most recently, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber currently teaches social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Below, Graeber discusses his latest book, the concept of debt in detail, and how his involvement in the anarchist movement sparked his interest in the history of debt.

Alex Bradshaw: Your latest book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, explores the origins of debt. What were some of the implications for communities and individuals when debt became a significant factor in people’s lives?

David Graeber: Well, one reason I wrote this book is that debt has come to pervade every aspect of our lives. International relations are all about debt, modern nation-states run on deficit financing, and consumer debt drives the economy—yet no one has, to my knowledge, ever written a history of the phenomenon. Even though people have written histories of almost anything else you can possibly imagine.

What I discovered was that in some ways, all this is nothing new. It’s probably fair to say that most human beings have been debtors at least at some point in their lives. Similarly, most uprisings, revolts, insurrections, mass political mobilizations in human history have been about debt—for instance, Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic largely emerged as a way of settling debt crises of one sort or another. Usually, in the end, enduring political regimes have had to come up with some solution to the debt trap, to avoid having the bulk of their population become effectively (or literally) slaves or peons to their creditors.

More here. [Photo of David Graeber from Wikipedia.]