A History of Debt
March 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
On Friday I listened to the concluding episode in David Graeber’s Radio 4 series Promises, Promises: A History of Debt. This was in the 15-minute slot after The World at One, a lunchtime accompaniment for many who, like me, work at home. It has delivered some outstanding social history strands, running across two weeks or more. Graeber, professor of anthropology at the LSE and the author of Debt: the First 5000 Years, had 10 slots to span those five millennia and he did so with exemplary economy.
Money originated as a way of measuring debt and the spread of coinage was part of the military supply chain needed by the great empires of the ancient world. From the end of the 17th century the expansion of slavery depended on a vast network of credit. It is part of Graeber’s argument that debt has ever been the means whereby the rich enslave the poor. The Bank of England came into existence in 1694 with the first loan the bankers made to William III for his expensive wars, and since then money has been circulating government debt. This public debt, Graeber points out, is an inherent necessity of capitalism, and this makes a nonsense of analogies between domestic housekeeping and national economies.
Such a history is complicated enough, but for most of us the mystifications of neoliberal economics and the mechanisms whereby money has grown as a virtual commodity continue to be opaque. Fortunately, since 2008 we’ve had some good explainers emerging. Graeber is one of these and he brings us up to date with what lies behind the obfuscations of politicians. What Greece is up against makes it all the more urgent to understand that things can change.
I really recommend these programmes. You can still hear them on BBC iPlayer: