The History of Debt

13:34 Fri 23 Apr 2010
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“Debt: The first five thousand years” is a fascinating long-term overview of how debt has evolved and been managed through its history. The perspective granted by the long view is quite different from how I’d been looking at recent debt-related events, in particular regarding the “virtual versus real” money debate.

The author, David Graeber, points out that “virtual money”, money not linked to some “hard standard”, actually emerged first, which is counterintuitive, particularly to those who regard the virtual kind as a recent creation of dubiously-motivated states. He also points out that “hard” money is intrinsically linked to warfare (because it’s possible to steal it; a possibly more accurate statement would be that it’s possible to acquire “hard” money while remaining unconnected to, or destroying, the system where that money originated—something that’s not possible in the same way with virtual money).

From this point, he produces the concept of an economic cycle that I’ve never come across before:

… [O]ne can see the last 5 000 years of human history as the history of a kind of alternation. Credit systems seem to arise, and to become dominant, in periods of relative social peace, across networks of trust, whether created by states or, in most periods, transnational institutions, whilst precious metals replace them in periods characterised by widespread plunder.

—David Graeber. “Debt: the first five thousand years”. Eurozine, 20 Aug 2009.

I highly recommend reading the whole article.

(Note: I came across the article via Hacker News and The Long Now.)

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