I found what looks like a good interview with the author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”. I don’t find his anthropological argument compelling at all.

Think about what they’re saying here — basically: that a bunch of Neolithic farmers in a village somewhere, or Native Americans or whatever, will be engaging in transactions only through the spot trade. So, if your neighbor doesn’t have what you want right now, no big deal. Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” — and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all — if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

I find it really telling that he is picking apart a straw-man of his own devising. Of course trading within a village can be built on owing, that’s obvious. But that’s not what I’m talking about (and this all goes back before farming). Real barter and money would be built up from trade between different tribes, where the social support of tribal trust is not available. Anthropologists have been able to study trade between tribal groups in early California and Australia. Neighboring groups might not even speak the same language. Native California had 80 and 90 distinct languages. Trade based on simple social indebtedness just wouldn’t work between these groups. It’s only trade between groups which carries sea shells far from the sea and obsidian far from the volcano. I find it interesting that Graeber is apparently oblivious to that fact.

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