Reviewed at Bookforum. To read the whole review, go here.
... Graeber argues that the expansionist wars of the Axial period were motivated largely by the need to find new sources of precious metals to plunder; a development that came at around the same time as the innovation of coinage systems and the rise of a new professionalized soldier class. All this spurred a new sort of debt: the kind that could be abstracted from goods. This, in turn, motivated reflection on humanity's place in the world, and gave rise to what we know today as the great Axial Age religious and philosophical traditions: particularly Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Greek philosophical rationalism. Underpinning all this was the question of how debt should be paid, or whether it can be paid at all.
The guiding principle of Graeber's sweeping global history is that debt must not remain the exclusive property of economic historians, and moreover, that anthropologists are better equipped to take on the issue. The foundational myth on which economics rests, and which Graeber relishes debunking, is the "touchingly utopian" idea that money emerged directly out of primitive barter systems and had only to do with interest-maximizing exchange. Arguing against this from an anthropological perspective, Graeber claims that debt is the basis of society, and as such is inherently ineliminable. He illustrates this point through the example of debt to one's parents: to seek to cancel that debt would be impossible. Graeber describes a system of gift-giving in traditional societies that takes place over time, and involves gifts of slightly more or less value than the ones that preceded them, thus ensuring that everyone is always slightly in debt or in credit to everyone else. This sort of debt, he says, is nothing less than the continual creation of society. It is not so much that we owe something to society, but that society "just is our debts."