In the second chapter David Graeber explodes a foundational myth of economics. In textbooks all around the world the history of economics is summarized thusly: first came barter, then money, only later were credit and debt invented. The problem with this presentation is that “barter” economies pretty much never existed. We don’t find them either in anthropological study of any human cultures around the world, nor in historical records anywhere. In fact, the very first records of any kind are of credits and debits in Mesopotamian tablets.
But the story of barter is so ingrained in us we probably find the fact that it didn’t really happen dumbfounding. I mean, of course people barter. Don’t they? If I have wheat and you have ham and I want ham but I don’t have any money I just trade you my wheat for your ham, right?
Graeber shows how the idea of barter was created in exactly this way: as a thought experiment by economists trying to explain their discipline. But the myth of barter was never really compared against actual human societies. It was was simply assumed that barter must be what people do when they don’t have money and all sorts of imaginary scenarios were concocted, without reference to historical records, to explain the invention of money and gradually increasing complexity of this new thing they called “the economy”.
Economists imagine that complications arising from barter are what gave the impetus for creating money. For example they describe something called the double coincidence of needs: you and I both have to need what the other has for a direct trade to work. But the truth is much simpler. Barter doesn’t work in a small village or tribal setting because it presumes antagonism between the people involved in the exchange. If we live in a village where we see each other on a daily basis though, we can’t afford this kind of antagonism. I can’t seek my own gain at your loss because we are in a long-term relationship. Instead we will come up with a way of accounting for debts. When you need wheat I will give it to you with the understanding that when I need ham you will return the favour.
Here is what I think the take-away from this mistaken historiography should be: the foundational myth of economics establishes the entire system on the basis of antagonistic transactions of self-interest when in truth the story of debt is a story about human relationships. Debt was originally the answer to the question of how you and I can meet each others’ needs and remain friends.
The Myth of Barter