Debt: 5000 Years and Counting

University of Birmingham
Arts and Law, Lectures Talks and Workshops, Research, Students
Friday 8th (10:00) - Saturday 9th June 2018 (15:00)
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Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, University of Birmingham 8–9 June, 2018

David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) challenges historians, anthropologists and other social scientists to analyse the relationship between debt, money and human society on the broadest historical and geographical scales. Where the study of debt and money has often been confined to ‘economic history’ or technical specialisations such as numismatics, Graeber demands that we move beyond a narrow economism to ‘ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like’.

The goal of our conference is to pick up this challenge. We will consider what is at stake in the current moment as well as general tendencies, dynamics and lived experiences of previous cycles of credit and physical money. A public conversation that seemed to be opening up at the start of the global financial crisis but ‘never ended up taking place’ is still desperately needed. How could we help to stimulate this conversation through our own work on debt across time and space?

We invite paper proposals from scholars working on ‘debt’ within (and beyond) the disciplines of history, anthropology and other social sciences. Questions to be tackled include, but are not restricted to:

  • ‘How did we come to see all morality as debt?’ Which people and what ranges of experience have been made to disappear from accounts of ‘the economy’ in mainstream economics, history and social science? How does this distort our view of the past and present and limit our imaginations about future possibilities?
  • How do social and religious movements emerge and transform in response to issues of debt, exploitation and monetary circulation? What are the historical successes of such movements in addressing ‘the social dislocations introduced by debt’?
  • Are the logics of the market and the state mirror-images of each other? What is the relationship between free markets and capitalism, historically and in the current period?
  • How should we define capitalism? Can it be analytically separated from its history of colonial violence?
  • How should we understand the period inaugurated by the floating of the dollar in 1971? How far can it be compared to previous ‘cycles of history’? What is distinctively new about the times we are living in?
  • Why is gendered violence so central to the history of debt? Did, as Graeber argues, ‘patriarchy’ emerge as a revolt against city-based empires? How have states incorporated and provoked new forms of gendered resistance?
  • How helpful is the model of the ‘military-slavery-coinage complex’ for analysing Eurasian societies of the ‘Axial Age’, ca. 600 BCE – ca. 600 CE? How far can similar dynamics be discerned in other periods or regions?
  • What can be established about the role of debt in the Americas, and whether the cycles or mechanisms described in Eurasia were paralleled in pre-Columbian societies as well?
  • The financial apparatus of capitalism, while unique to capitalism, nonetheless emerged before wage-labour was in any way widespread, and certainly before the industrial revolution. What does this tell us about the relation of ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’ or indeed the relevance of those very terms?
  • How successful are Graeber’s cycles of debt as historical periodization? What do the outliers tell us? How do Graeber’s cycles compare with other schemas, such as Marx’s ‘epochs of production’? Do Marxist accounts of the relationships between production, consumption, distribution and exchange in different historical epochs need to be revised?

For this conference, we have adopted a format inspired by the set-up of the symposium ‘Dislocating Masculinities Revisited’, organised by the anthropologists Andrea Cornwall, Frank Karioris and Nancy Lindisfarne in 2014. The main idea is to make the conference simultaneously less hierarchical, more productive and, well, more fun.

We will ask our delegates to submit papers (max. 3000 words) that can be circulated in advance. At the conference itself, we will forego the standard 20-minute presentations. Instead, our discussions will be structured through non-hierarchical groups. Each participant will be a member of two groups: one organised on the basis of chronological expertise to encourage specialist discussions on particular periods and conjunctures, the other bringing together colleagues at different stages of their careers and representing different disciplines to stimulate general comparative exchanges. Discussions in the groups will be structured around conceptual and thematic questions arising from the pre-circulated papers, not the papers themselves.

In addition to these discussions, we will have several plenary sessions in the format of the pre-arranged debates on a set of key problems for the history and theory of debt. These debates will aim at both synthesising the group-based discussions and formulating new questions. There will also be a keynote lecture by David Graeber (LSE).

To submit a paper proposal, please, send it to  The deadline for proposal submissions is 1 November, 2017. Paper proposals should include a title, an abstract of max. 500 words, and a brief biography. The deadline for selected papers will be 1 May 2018.

We will ask our delegates to contribute a moderate fee (£30) towards the organisational costs of the conference.

The conference will take place at the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, University of Birmingham, on 8-9 June, 2018. It is organised by Ilya Afanasyev, Nicholas Evans and Nicholas Matheou.