Anthropologist David Graeber could not have timed his new book better. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a sweeping historical survey of the social meaning of debt – or more precisely, the relationship between debtors and creditors. While many people regard this as a straight-forward moral matter – “everyone needs to pay the debts they owe” – Graeber invokes dozens of instances throughout world history to show how this relationship is highly complicated -- and essentially political.
Debt is not really a freely entered into contract between equals. It is a time-delayed market exchange in which the debtor agrees to be subordinate to the creditor for the duration of the loan. Upon full repayment of the debt, the debtor suddenly becomes an equal to the creditor again.
The subordination of debtors is not only morally fraught, as evidenced by synonyms for the word debt such as “sin” and “guilt.” Debt is also (indeed, primarily) a political subordination. The creditor has the whip hand – and debtors are vulnerable to all sorts of contempt, abuse and punishment. In Roman times, a creditor could seize a debtor's wives and children as collateral, and make them personal slaves, if the debtor failed to repay a loan.