David Graeber: On the Invention of Money

debt the first 5000 years-smFrom: Naked Capitalism

A Reply to Robert Murphy’s ‘Have Anthropologists Overturned Menger?

By David Graeber, who currently holds the position of Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London. Prior to this he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University. He is the author of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ which is available from Amazon


Last week, Robert F. Murphy published a piece on the webpage of the Von Mises Institute responding to some points I made in a recent interview on Naked Capitalism, where I mentioned that the standard economic accounts of the emergence of money from barter appears to be wildly wrong. Since this contradicted a position taken by one of the gods of the Austrian pantheon, the 19th century economist Carl Menger, Murphy apparently felt honor-bound to respond.

In a way, Murphy’s essay barely merits response. In the interview I’m simply referring to arguments made in my book, ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’. In his response, Murphy didn’t even consult the book; in fact he later admitted he was responding at least in part not even to the interview but to an inaccurate summary of my position someone had made in another blog!

We are not, in other words, dealing with a work of scholarship. However, in the blogsphere, the quality or even intention of an argument often doesn’t matter. I have to assume Murphy was aware that all he had to do was to write something — anything really — and claim it rebutted me, and the piece would be instantly snatched up by a right-wing echo chamber, mirrored on half a dozen websites and that followers of those websites would then dutifully begin appearing across the web declaring to everyone willing to listen that my work had been rebutted. The fact that I instantly appeared on the Von Mises web page to offer a detailed response, and that Murphy has since effectively conceded, writing an elaborate climb-down saying that he had no intention to cast doubt on my argument as a whole at all, only to note that I had not definitively disproved Menger’s, has done nothing to change this. Indeed, on both US and UK Amazon, I have seen fans of Austrian economics appear to inform potential buyers that I am an economic ignoramus whose work has been entirely discredited.

I am posting this more detailed version of my reply not just to set the record straight, but because the whole question of the origins of money raises other interesting questions — not least, why any modern economist would get so worked up about the question. Let me begin by filling in some background on the current state of scholarly debate on this question, explain my own position, and show what an actual debate might have been like.