Debt: The first five thousand years

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt's potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.

David Graeber in Eurozine:

Business-debt119 What follows is a fragment of a much larger project of research on debt and debt money in human history. The first and overwhelming conclusion of this project is that in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call “the economy”. What's more, origins matter. The violence may be invisible, but it remains inscribed in the very logic of our economic common sense, in the apparently self-evident nature of institutions that simply would never and could never exist outside of the monopoly of violence – but also, the systematic threat of violence – maintained by the contemporary state.

Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.

This sort of logic has at least two very interesting consequences, though they might be said to pull in rather contrary directions.

More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]