In his 1976 book The Twelfth Planet, independent scholar Zecharia Sitchin drew on his heterodox studies of archeology, biology, anthropology, and ancient Sumerian to put forward the thesis that an alien race from the planet Nibiru came to earth thousands of years ago and enslaved the human species and forced them to mine precious metals, instilling in our ancestors a religious respect for metallurgy and an insatiable love for gold. As I remember it from Sitchin’s appearances on the Art Bell show in the 1990s, the original political hierarchies in ancient times derived from the appointed intermediaries to the Nibiru people (known in various human mythologies as the Nephilim or the Annunaki); these became the earliest human kings, with access to supernatural power that justified their rule, the purpose of which was essentially to expedite the greatest amount of precious metal extraction possible.
I couldn’t help but think of Sitchin’s origin story when, in chapter nine of Debt, Graeber lays out the details of what he calls the “military-coinage-slavery complex,” by which the empires of the “axial age” became caught up in a cycle of crisis and conquest. Graeber argues that coinage was basically invented during this period to pay armies, who were then employed primarily in capturing slaves who could in turn work the mines to provide the necessary coinage. “The entire Roman empire, at its height,” he suggests, “could be understood as a vast machine for the extraction of precious metals and their coining and distribution to the military.”
Both Graeber and Sitchin are addressing the same riddle: They are trying to explain the apparent absurdity of human goldbuggery, find some ur-villains at the beginnings of civilization who can be blamed for the miseries created by the otherwise pointless expansion of economic activity along such lines. The point of economic organization and expansion via debt instruments can’t be as irrational as digging up the planet’s gold supply to fuel endless wars, can it? But what is the root of economic evil? Why have we chosen to suppress the “everyday communism” that Graeber identifies as the true core of human value, “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace”?
For Graeber, gold remains the mechanism that blinds us. In describing the return of coinage in the era of Western colonization, he argues that debt and other ad hoc modes of credit come to reinforce the depersonalized relations of the cash nexus epitomized by circulatable currencies.
If one looks at the actual history, though, it quickly becomes clear that all of these new forms of money in no way undermined the assumption that money was founded on the “intrinsic” value of gold and silver: in fact, they reinforced it. What seems to have happened is that, once credit became unlatched from real relations of trust between individuals (whether merchants or villagers ), it became apparent that money could, in effect, be produced simply by saying it was there; but that, when this is done in the amoral world of a competitive marketplace, it would almost inevitably lead to scams and confidence games of every sort—causing the guardians of the system to periodically panic, and seek new ways to latch the value of the various forms of paper back onto gold and silver.
Once money served as a measure of personal honor, of reputation, not a measure of abstract economic value. Money, Graeber suggests in his compelling early chapters, initially measures status; only later is it mobilized as a medium of exchange. Ultimately it becomes a key lever for “the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.”
The problem with cash is that it obviates social obligations, or decontextualizes them so that they can be tradable. This allows for the institution of slavery, which Graeber defines as “the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.” Slavery is the ultimate expression of the logic of cash: an economic world in which contingent social relations are eradicated, allowing for abstract and purely instrumentalized relations between people. The system of mutual trust and credit inherent in “everyday communism” is destroyed; instead emerges the pitiless accounting of competitive exchange in a Hobbesean, atomized society, where all are at war with all.
But such slavery, seen from the point of view of “the bourgeois virtues,” is another word for the freedom of urban life—the apparently bogus liberty of anonymous encounters, privacy, and the capability to escape the intricate, embedded networks of social-structuring obligations one is born into. The roots of debt in slavery end up masked by the incipient ideology of freedom as convenience — of being unencumbered by the ties and obligations of reciprocal relations with other people. Slavery and convenience are two sides of the same coin. Convenience means the ability to do everything on our own terms on our own schedule, to have everything on demand — to experience the god-like transcendent power of the Nibiru. But while only the elect few experience such freedom, the masses live with exploitation and disenfranchisement via financial mystification.
Graeber, of course, amasses far more credible evidence to support his thesis about the history of gold lust than Sitchin does for his. Though actually, how would I know? Part of Graber’s strategy is to overawe ordinary readers with the breadth of his evidence, just as Sitchin intends to with his audience. But am I any less credulous than the average Twelfth Planet reader? As Graeber paints his history of human societies, a large part of me wants to believe merely because he tends to blame the right people for everything that is wrong (elites throughout the ages, who evolved financial divide-and-conquer strategies to secure their power) and holds out the possibility that innate human goodness and the inherent bonds of responsibility we feel toward one another will eventually win out.
I found myself consulting the footnotes less and less often as I read further into Debt, because picking nits with details began to seem contrary to the experience of absorbing the broad sweep of Graeber’s massive eons-spanning argument—particularly when he enters the “cycles of history” phase of his analysis. Reading the book at that point felt like being on an especially long ride at Epcot Center, with my little cart being dragged through a captivating variety of historical dioramas from a entertainingly diverse mix of cultures that I passively accept at face value. Why would I bother to hop out of the car to probe the authenticity of the spectacle? I’m just glad someone bothered to build the thing. I don’t often get to feel as though I am the exact intended audience for something so elaborate. (Though it may be that the vaguely leftist, post-grad-school demographic is gaining market power.)
I wanted to keep figures like Sitchin and Erich von Däniken out of my mind as I was reading Debt but my own ignorance militated against it. I experienced Graeber’s lone-wolf contrarian erudition as coercive; there was no way I could have enough grounding in all the fields he draws from to mount my own critique. Graeber’s ambitious, assimilative approach implies a certain lack of trust in the incremental work of other scholars, or that collectively the various independent research projects can do anything but reinforce the institutional biases engrained by the corrupt forces of established power.
Because of its scope, Debt reads as though it was the product of reasoning backward from preconceived tenets about human nature and politics, with suitable anecdotes framed to fit the elastic schema elaborated to encompass all of history. Whenever I felt myself becoming skeptical, I would be able to infer from the book’s rhetoric that this was a product of my ideological brainwashing, part of the implicit educational conspiracy that has kept me ethnocentrically blinkered. How silly of me, for instance, to not know that what I think of as the “Middle Ages” was really just the late arrival of a progressive world historical cycle that was mitigating the abuses of preceding age of imperialist cruelty. Debt threatens to marginalize itself by its voraciousness, its air of incontrovertibilty.