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David Graeber’s Debt: My First 5,000 Words

In the final lines of his introduction to Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber writes that “[f]or a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions.” And as he put it in a guest post over at Savage Minds:

The aim of the book was to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate…[T]he credit crisis —and near collapse of the global economy in 2008—afforded the perfect opportunity. In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” (my italics)

Debt is a “big book,” in other words, because he wants to re-open a set of questions that had come to seem closed “for a very long time,” the questions of “what human beings and human society are or could be like—what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”

To be more specific, Graeber’s starting point is the Grand neoliberal orthodoxy that regards Debt as the worst possible thing, the argument, for example, that austerity measures like an end to state subsidies of public libraries in California are preferable to the moral crisis of going (deeper) into debt. This has been a bipartisan consensus that dominated the Anglo-American political and media discourse up to somewhere around the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, and which still dominates – perhaps a little more quietly, now – our political class’s actions. It may not be desirable to cut pensions or eliminate what used to be essential social services – goes the argument – but it’s better than going into debt.

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