by David Graeber

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024

What are the big ideas? 1. Debt and Barter: Contrary to popular belief, barter was not the primary means of exchange in most historical societies. Instead, credit s

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Debt and Barter: Contrary to popular belief, barter was not the primary means of exchange in most historical societies. Instead, credit systems were more common, with debt taking on various forms and functions. The book challenges the conventional economic history that focuses solely on coinage and suggests a shift in perspective towards understanding debt and credit as essential components of economic systems.
  2. Primordial Debts: The concept of an infinite debt owed to society or humanity is a relatively modern idea, originating from the context of nation-states and individual obligations. The book explores historical perspectives on primordial debts, shedding light on how they have been used throughout history to justify various forms of authority and power structures.
  3. Human Economies vs Commercial Economies: The book highlights the distinction between human economies, which prioritize maintaining social relationships, and commercial economies, which focus on buying and selling goods and services. This unique perspective challenges traditional economic theories that view all human interactions as exchange-based and sheds light on the importance of understanding the social contexts in which economies operate.
  4. The role of Honor and Degradation: The book delves into the historical origins of concepts like honor, property, freedom, and debt, highlighting their connections to ancient Rome's conception of dominium and res. This perspective offers a novel approach to understanding how these concepts have shaped our contemporary economic systems and power structures.
  5. The cycles of History: The book explores the historical evolution of debt concepts and institutions across different civilizations, providing unique insights into their common themes and differences. By examining this historical context, the book sheds light on the role of debt in shaping the cycles of history and offers a nuanced perspective on the complex relationship between debt and power.

Chapter Summaries

1: On the Experience of Moral Confusion


  • The financial crisis of 2008 revealed that many complex financial instruments were actually scams, leading to public outrage and calls for reform.
  • Despite this, no significant changes have been made to the financial system and there is a risk of another catastrophic financial collapse in the future.
  • Throughout history, there have been periods where money was assumed to be an abstraction, or virtual, rather than physical bullion. These periods were often accompanied by institutions designed to protect debtors from creditors, who would team up with politicians and bureaucrats to squeeze everyone dry.
  • The current age of virtual credit money began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect creditors, rather than debtors.
  • Historical reality reveals that the state and the market have always been intertwined, rather than diametrically opposed principles.
  • Common-sense assumptions about the nature of economy and society often reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society and the cosmos can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal.
  • The origins of money are rooted in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption.
  • The history of debt provides insights into fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like, including what we actually owe each other and what it means to ask that question.


“If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank. — American Proverb”

“the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world’s debt enforcers—“You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs.” I launched into historical background, explaining how, during the ’70s oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn’t figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go banking”); how they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early ’80s; how, during the ’80s and ’90s, this led to the Third World debt crisis; how the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order to obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on”

“If history shows anything, it is that there's no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it's the victim who's doing something wrong.”

“For thousands of years, violent men have been able to tell their victims that those victims owe them something. If nothing else, they “owe them their lives” (a telling phrase) because they haven’t been killed.”

“The problem is, the moment one starts framing things in terms of debt, people will inevitably start asking who really owes what to whom.”

“I am well known by my friends to be a workaholic - to their often justifiable annoyance. I am therefore keenly aware that such behavior is at best slightly pathological, and certainly in no sense makes one a better person.”

“Here we come to the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market? On one level the difference between an obligation and a debt is simple and obvious. A debt is the obligation to pay a certain sum of money. As a result, a debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal-which, in turn, allows them to be transferable. If one owes a favor, or one’s life, to another human being-it is owed to that person specifically. But if one owes forty thousand dollars at 12-percent interest, it doesn’t really matter who the creditor is; neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing-as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effects; one need only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. If you end up having to abandon your home and wander in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that’s unfortunate, but incidental to the creditor. Money is money, and a deal’s a deal. From this perspective, the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic-and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. The factor of violence, which I have been emphasizing up until now, may appear secondary. The difference between a “debt” and a mere moral obligation is not the presence or absence of men with weapons who can enforce that obligation by seizing the debtor’s possessions or threatening to break his legs. It is simply that a creditor has the means to specify, numerically, exactly how much the debtor owes.”

“the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. That,”

2: The Myth of Barter


  • The conventional economic history of money's origin is largely a myth, based on misunderstandings and false assumptions.
  • In most historical examples where barter is suggested as a primary means of exchange, there was actually a credit system in place.
  • Credit systems have been the norm throughout history, even when coinage existed. The use of coins mostly supplanted credit for large transactions, not the other way around.
  • Barter appears to be an accidental byproduct of the use of money, and it is mainly what people do when they have no access to currency.
  • The study of the history of money needs to focus on debt and credit systems rather than on coinage.


“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong. —”

“Even logic and conversation are really just forms of trading, and as in all things, humans will always try to seek their own best advantage, to seek the greatest profit they can from the exchange.”

“In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.”

3: Primordial Debts


  • The idea of an infinite debt owed to a universal "society" or "humanity" is a relatively modern concept, originating in the context of the nation-state and the idea that individuals have obligations to a larger collective before they can exercise any rights.
  • Primordial debt theories, which posit that humans owe an infinite debt to their ancestors, gods, or other abstract entities, emerged in ancient India around 500 BC but gained new meaning during the French Revolution and its aftermath.
  • The concept of primordial debt has been used throughout history to justify various forms of authority, from religious institutions to monarchies to modern nation-states.
  • The idea that individuals have unlimited obligations to society before they can exercise any rights is a form of collective determinism that ignores the role of individual agency and freedom.
  • Critics argue that the concept of primordial debt is often used to justify the exercise of power by elites, who claim to speak for the collective and enforce its debts on individuals.
  • The idea of an infinite debt to society or humanity can be seen as a form of nationalism, which posits that individuals owe their existence and allegiance to a particular nation or state above all else.
  • The concept of primordial debt is problematic because it assumes that there is a clear boundary between the individual and the collective, and that the collective can be represented by a single authority or institution. In reality, individuals and collectives are interconnected and constantly influencing each other.
  • Alternative perspectives on human existence and obligation include seeing humans as part of the natural world and owing debts to nature, or viewing human existence as a gift that requires us to be generous and compassionate towards others.


“What credit theorists like Mitchell-Innes were arguing is that even if Henry gave Joshua a gold coin instead of a piece of paper, the situation would be essentially the same. A gold coin is a promise to pay something else of equivalent value to a gold coin. After all, a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will. In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings. This”

“Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called "the stock" (hence the origin of the term "stock holder") and the debtor kept the other, called "the stub" (hence the origin of the term "ticket stub.)”

“In fact this is precisely the logic on which the Bank of England—the first successful modern central bank—was originally founded. In 1694, a consortium of English bankers made a loan of £1,200,000 to the king. In return they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to advance IOUs for a portion of the money the king now owed them to any inhabitant of the kingdom willing to borrow from them, or willing to deposit their own money in the bank—in effect, to circulate or "monetize" the newly created royal debt. This was a great deal for the bankers (they got to charge the king 8 percent annual interest for the original loan and simultaneously charge interest on the same money to the clients who borrowed it) , but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it ever were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.”

“But if Smith was right, and gold and silver became money through the natural workings of the market completely independently of governments, then wouldn't the obvious thing be to just grab control of the gold and silver mines?”

“Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem—unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and ani­mals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions. On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one's entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.”

“The reasons why anthropologists haven’t been able to come up with a simple, compelling story for the origins of money is because there’s no reason to believe there could be one. Money was no more ever “invented” than music or mathematics or jewelry. What we call “money” isn’t a “thing” at all; it’s a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions: of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y. As such it is probably as old as human thought.”

“Keynesian orthodoxy started from the assumption that capitalist markets would not really work unless capitalist governments were willing effectively to play nanny: most famously, by engaging in massive deficit “pump-priming” during downturns.”

“One of the puzzling things about all the theories about the origins of money that we’ve been looking at so far is that they almost completely ignore the evidence of anthropology. Anthropologists do have a great deal of knowledge of how economies within stateless societies actually worked.”

“After all, we do owe everything we are to others. This is simply true. The language we speak and even think in, our habits and opinions, the kind of food we like to eat, the knowledge that makes our lights switch on and toilets flush, even the style in which we carry out our gestures of defiance and rebellion against social conventions—all of this we learned from other people, most of them long dead.”

“Even until quite recently, many of the world’s inhabitants were not quite sure of what country they were citizens, or why it should matter. My mother, who was born a Jew in Poland, once told me a joke from her childhood: There was a small town located along the frontier between Russia and Poland; no one was ever quite sure to which it belonged. One day an official treaty was signed and not long after, surveyors arrived to draw a border. Some villagers approached them where they had set up their equipment on a nearby hill. “So where are we, Russia or Poland?” “According to our calculations, your village now begins exactly thirty-seven meters into Poland.” The villagers immediately began dancing for joy. “Why?” the surveyors asked. “What difference does it make?” “Don’t you know what this means?” they replied. “It means we’ll never have to endure another one of those terrible Russian winters!”

“This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don't owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it's a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would rec­ognize today.”

4: Cruelty and Redemption


  • Debt crises were a common cause of social unrest throughout ancient history, leading to protests and calls for debt cancellation or redistribution of land.
  • Debtors often argued that they and their creditors were equal parties to a contract, making the condition of debtors a moral issue.
  • Ancient societies had varying attitudes towards lending and borrowing, with some showing more generosity towards kin or fellow citizens while others charged high interest rates or seized land and people as collateral.
  • Religious traditions, such as the Bible, often incorporated arguments for debt cancellation and redistribution of land within their moral frameworks.


“Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: "Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs. ... The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began "comparing power with power, measuring, calculating" and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt. It's not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn't aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.”

“One might object that [debt peonage] was just assumed to be in the nature of things: like the imposition of tribute on conquered populations, it might have been resented, but it wasn’t considered a moral issue, a matter of right and wrong. Some things just happen. This has been the most common attitude of peasants to such phenomena throughout human history. What’s striking about the historical record is that in the case of debt crises, this was not how many reacted. Many actually did become indignant. So many, in fact, that most of our contemporary language of social justice, our way of speaking of human bondage and emancipation, continues to echo ancient arguments about debt.

It’s particularly striking because so many other things do seem to have been accepted as simply in the nature of things. One does not see a similar outcry against caste systems, for example, or for that matter, the institution of slavery. Surely slaves and untouchables often experienced at least equal horrors. No doubt many protested their condition. Why was it that the debtors’ protests seemed to carry such greater moral weight? Why were debtors so much more effective in winning the ear of priests, prophets, officials, and social reformers? Why was it that officials like Nehemiah were willing to give such sympathetic consideration to their complaints, to inveigh, to summon great assemblies?

Some have suggested practical reasons: debt crises destroyed the free peasantry, and it was free peasants who were drafted into ancient armies to fight in wars. Rulers thus had a vested interest in maintaining their recruitment base. No doubt this was a factor; clearly, it wasn’t the only one. There is no reason to believe that Nehemiah, for instance, in his anger at the usurers, was primarily concerned with his ability to levy troops for the Persian king. It had to be something deeper.

What makes debt different is that it is premised on an assumption of equality.

To be a slave, or lower caste, is to be intrinsically inferior. These are relations of unadulterated hierarchy. In the case of debt, we are talking about two individuals who begin as equal parties to a contract. Legally, at least as far as the contract is concerned, they are the same.”

5: A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations


  • Debt is a relationship where one party owes something to another, often in the form of money or services.
  • The history of debt can be traced back to ancient civilizations and has evolved over time, reflecting changing social and economic structures.
  • In many traditional societies, debts were seen as obligations that could not be easily discharged and had to be repaid over generations.
  • With the rise of capitalism and the market economy, debt took on a new meaning as a tool for accumulating wealth and financing economic growth.
  • The modern concept of debt is based on the idea of equal exchange, where both parties receive something of equivalent value.
  • This perception of debt has led to the development of elaborate social norms and etiquette around borrowing and lending, often involving the use of formal language and ritualized gestures.
  • These norms reflect a deeper philosophical assumption that all human interactions can be reduced to matters of exchange, and that any ongoing human relationships must take the form of debts.
  • However, this perspective ignores the importance of social bonds and mutual obligations that go beyond the realm of economic exchange.
  • The concept of debt has been criticized for promoting individualism and encouraging a culture of greed and selfishness.
  • Some argue that a more communal approach to debt, based on mutual aid and obligation, could help create a more equitable and sustainable economy.


“top-down chains of command are not particularly efficient: they tend to promote stupidity among those on top and resentful foot-dragging among those on the bottom.”

“Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republi­can) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 198os, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages.”

“sharing is not simply about morality, but also about pleasure. Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.”

“One day when Nasruddin was left in charge of the local teahouse, the king and some retainers, who had been hunting nearby, stopped in for breakfast. “Do you have quail eggs?” asked the king. “I’m sure I can find some,” answered Nasruddin. The king ordered an omelet of a dozen quail eggs, and Nasruddin hurried out to look for them. After the king and his party had eaten, he charged them a hundred gold pieces. The king was puzzled. “Are quail eggs really that rare in this part of the country?” “It’s not so much quail eggs that are rare around here,” Nasruddin replied. “It’s more visits from kings.”

“in some of the more lawless parts of the former Soviet Union, gangs prey so systematically on travelers on trains and buses that they have developed the habit of giving each victim a little token to confirm that the bearer has already been robbed. Obviously, one step toward the creation of a state. Actually,”

6: Games with Sex and Death


  • Human economies and commercial economies differ in their primary functions: human economies prioritize maintaining social relationships, while commercial economies focus on buying and selling goods and services.
  • In human economies, debts cannot be fully repaid because people are unique and irreplaceable, making them non-equivalent to one another or to objects.
  • Violence is required to dislodge people from their social contexts and make them exchangeable in commercial economies.
  • Societies that practiced slavery or were subjected to it often experienced a shift from human economy to commercial economy, where people became commodities.
  • The historical legacy of war, conquest, and slavery has influenced our conceptions of honor, property, freedom, and the role of debt in society.


“Even in the Bible, the admonition in the Ten Commandments not to 'covet thy neighbor's wife' clearly referred not to lust in one's heart (adultery had already been covered in commandment number seven), but to the prospect of taking her as a debt-peon—in other words, as a servant to sweep one's yard and hang out the laundry.”

“MISSIONARY: Look at you! You’re just wasting your life away, lying around like that. SAMOAN: Why? What do you think I should be doing? MISSIONARY: Well, there are plenty of coconuts all around here. Why not dry some copra and sell it? SAMOAN: And why would I want to do that? MISSIONARY: You could make a lot of money. And with the money you make, you could get a drying machine, and dry copra faster, and make even more money. SAMOAN: Okay. And why would I want to do that? MISSIONARY: Well, you’d be rich. You could buy land, plant more trees, expand operations. At that point, you wouldn’t even have to do the physical work anymore, you could just hire a bunch of other people to do it for you. SAMOAN: Okay. And why would I want to do that? MISSIONARY: Well, eventually, with all that copra, land, machines, employees, with all that money—you could retire a very rich man. And then you wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just lie on the beach all day.”

“There will always be at least a handful of people unscrupulous enough to take advantage of such a situation—and a handful is all it takes.”

“I am not speaking strictly of slavery here, but of that process that dislodges people from the webs of mutual commitment, shared history, and collective responsibility that make them what they are, so as to make them exchangeable--that is, to make it possible to make them subject to the logic of debt. Slavery is just the logical end-point, the most extreme from of such disentanglement. But for that reason it provides us with a window on the process as a whole. What's more, owing to its historical role, slavery has shaped our basic assumptions and institutions in ways that we are no longer aware of and whose influence we would probably never wish to acknowledge if we were. If we have become a debt society, it is because the legacy of war, conquest, and slavery has never completely gone away. It's still there, lodged in our most intimate conceptions of honor, property, even freedom. It's just that we can no longer see that it's there.”

7: Honor and Degradation, or, On the Foundations of Contemporary Civilization


  • The concept of property has its roots in ancient Rome, where it was closely tied to slavery and conquest.
  • Property rights were seen as absolute power over things and people, including the power to sell or give away that which belonged to others.
  • This led to complex debates in medieval Europe about what constituted dominium (lordship) versus res (property).
  • The idea of natural rights emerged in the late Middle Ages, which held that individuals possessed inherent rights to liberty and property.
  • However, this concept was not used to challenge slavery or serfdom but rather to assert that these relationships were voluntary and could be bought, sold, or given away.
  • The idea of natural rights was later adopted by liberal philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith, who saw society as a collection of individuals whose only significant relations were with their own possessions.
  • However, this perspective overlooks the fact that human beings are not just owners of property but also unique nexuses of relationships with others.
  • Debt and slavery are intimately connected: debt can be used to enslave people, and slaves are often used to pay off debts.
  • The idea of natural rights as property ownership has led to the commodification of human beings and their labor, including the concept of owning oneself.
  • This perspective also ignores the fact that humans are not just owners but also subjects of power, and that our freedoms and liberties are often defined in terms of obligations owed by others.
  • The idea of natural rights as property ownership has its roots in ancient Rome's conception of dominium and res, and it has been used to justify slavery, wage labor, debt peonage, and other forms of exploitation throughout history.


“impudicitia in ingenuo crimen est, in servo necessitas, in liberto officium (“to be the object of anal penetration is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, a duty for a freedman”).”

“At this point we can finally see what's really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of "use and abuse" over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man's household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”

“Thomas Jefferson, that owner of many slaves, chose to begin the Declaration of Independence by directly contradicting the moral basis of slavery, writing "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights ..." thus undercutting simultaneously any argument that Africans were racially inferior, and also that they or their ancestors could ever have been justly and legally deprived of their freedom. In doing so, however, he did not propose some radically new conception of rights and liberties. Neither have subsequent political philosophers. For the most part, we've just kept the old ones, but with the word "not" inserted here and there. Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn't really have them in the first place.”

8: Credit Versus Bullion, and the Cycles of History


  • Early civilizations used various forms of debt and credit for mutual aid, trade, and commercial transactions.
  • Interest-bearing loans originated in commercial contexts due to a lack of trust between lenders and borrowers.
  • Debt cancellation was a common practice in early civilizations to maintain social order, redistribute land, and restore economic balance.
  • Ancient Egypt had a different approach to debt, focusing on guilt and criminal consequences for defaulting on loans.
  • Early China used various currencies and credit instruments, with evidence of debt crises but no clear record of when interest-bearing loans emerged.
  • The earliest known use of coinage in ancient texts is attributed to rulers trying to alleviate the effects of natural disasters and prevent the sale of children as a result of debt.

9: The Axial Age (800 BC–600 AD)


  • The emergence of impersonal money in the Axial Age led to a separation of economic and ethical spheres, as seen in the development of markets and religious movements.
  • Markets emerged from government administrative systems but became entangled in military affairs, leading to materialist philosophies that questioned the nature of reality and humanity.
  • Philosophers responded by exploring ideas of humanity and morality, often in the context of peace movements that rejected violence as a foundation for politics.
  • The materialist impulse led to various attempts to create alternative social structures, but these ultimately failed or were co-opted by states.
  • The ideal division of spheres of human activity—market vs religion—endured and continues to shape modern society.
  • Religious movements provided escapism and alternatives for the oppressed, often creating liberated spaces within societies and influencing social changes such as the decline of slavery and warfare.

10: The Middle Ages (600 AD–1450 AD)


  • The evolution of debt concepts and institutions in Europe, India, and China were influenced by their unique cultural and historical contexts but shared some common themes.
  • In Europe, the concept of debt was closely linked to the idea of feudal hierarchy, where debts created unequal relationships between lords and vassals. This led to a society divided into three estates: Priests, Warriors, and Farmers or, in Christendom, Priests, Warriors, and Farmers.
  • In India, debt was seen as part of the natural order of things, with gods, humans, and other beings owing debts to each other. Debts were also used as a means of social control, with rulers intervening to prevent debts from leading to unrest or creating unequal power relationships.
  • In China, debt was seen as a way of maintaining the balance between heaven and earth, and contractual relationships between humans and celestial powers were common. This led to the development of talismans (fu) that represented agreements with the gods and could be used for magical purposes or as symbols of spiritual power.
  • The notion of a symbol as a material representation of an abstract idea became more prominent in Europe during the Middle Ages, with the development of the idea of the corporation as a "fictive person" (persona ficta) - a legal entity that could own property, have a seal, and make regulations for those natural persons of whom it was composed. This led to the emergence of profit-seeking enterprises like modern joint-stock companies.
  • In India and China, the concept of debt was closely linked to notions of hierarchy, morality, and the balance between heaven and earth. Debts were seen as part of the natural order of things, with gods, humans, and other beings owing debts to each other.
  • In Europe, the emergence of profit-seeking enterprises like modern joint-stock companies marked the beginning of a new era of human history, characterized by large-scale trade ventures overseas, armed ventures, and the eventual emergence of modern capitalism.

I hope that this brief overview has provided some useful context for understanding how concepts of debt have evolved throughout history in different cultural contexts. Let me know if you have any questions or would like more clarification on anything covered here!


“Normally, the easiest way to [use money to get more money, i.e. capitalism] is by establishing some kind of formal or de facto monopoly. For this reason, capitalists, whether merchant princes, financiers, or industrialists, invariably try to ally themselves with political authorities to limit the freedom of the market, so as to make it easier for them to do so. From this perspective, China was for most of its history the ultimate anti-capitalist market state. Unlike later European princes, Chinese rulers systematically refused to team up with would-be Chinese capitalists (who always existed). Instead, like their officials, they saw them as destructive parasites--though, unlike the usurers, ones whose fundamental selfish and antisocial motivations could still be put to use in certain ways. In Confucian terms, merchants were like soldiers. Those drawn to a career in the military were assumed to be driven largely by a love of violence. As individuals, they were not good people, but they were also necessary to defend the frontiers. Similarly, merchants were driven by greed and basically immoral; yet if kept under careful administrative supervision, they could be made to serve the public good. Whatever one might think of the principles, the results are hard to deny. For most of its history, China maintained the highest standard of living in the world--even England only really overtook it in perhaps the 1820s, well past the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

“Money is not created to earn money.”

“Dionysius warns us that we cannot begin to understand how symbols work until we rid ourselves of the notion that divine things are likely to be beautiful.”

11: Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450–1971)


  • Aztec civilization had a deep-rooted belief in the inevitability of apocalypse, possibly tied to their extensive gambling practices.
  • Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, invited Cortés and his men to be his guests in Tenochtitlán, possibly hoping for a revelation or grandiose announcement from them that would stave off the impending doom.
  • Cortés cheated repeatedly during their gaming sessions, and Moctezuma did not seem particularly concerned, likely due to his expectation of an apocalyptic event.
  • The concept of a national debt, which is essentially a promise for continual future improvement made by governments to people, has historically been associated with both the potential for great progress and the fear of imminent collapse or default.
  • Capitalist systems throughout history have shown an uneasy relationship with their own eternity, often exhibiting signs of impending destruction or apocalypse.
  • The Enlightenment period, which introduced revolutionary ideas about government and progress, was marked by a deep-rooted fear of economic collapse and default due to the growing national debts.
  • Victorians also held beliefs in the inevitability of societal degeneration and decline.
  • The fear of imminent extinction may be inherent in capitalist systems due to their infinite potential for credit generation, leading to periodic bubbles and crashes as markets attempt to grapple with the concept of eternity.


“The structure of the corporation is a telling case in point—and it is no coincidence that the first major joint-stock corporations in the world were the English and Dutch East India companies, ones that pursued that very same combination of exploration, conquest, and extraction as did the conquistadors. It is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment”

“The criminalization of debt, then, was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both a lender and borrower. One can only imagine the tensions and temptations that must have existed in a community—and communities, much though they are based on love, in fact because they are based on love, will always also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion—when it became clear that with sufficiently clever scheming, manipulation, and perhaps a bit of strategic bribery, they could arrange to have almost anyone they hated imprisoned or even hanged.”

“It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”

12: (1971–The Beginning of Something Yet to Be Determined)


  • The concept of debt has been used throughout history as a tool for justifying exploitation, conquest, and oppression.
  • Debt is not a neutral concept but is inherently tied to power imbalances and violence.
  • The use of debt to enslave individuals or populations has been common throughout history, particularly in ancient Greece and Rome.
  • The idea that debt is a natural part of economic life and that it is morally obligatory for individuals to pay their debts has been used to justify the exploitation of the poor and the working class.
  • The modern financial system is built on a foundation of debt, with banks creating money out of thin air and charging interest on it.
  • Debt has played a role in many historical crises, including the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Great Depression.
  • The concept of debt has been used to justify colonialism, imperialism, and the exploitation of natural resources.
  • The idea that individuals have a moral obligation to pay their debts is a relatively recent development in human history and is not a universal truth.
  • A more just economic system would prioritize the well-being of people and the planet over the accumulation of wealth and debt.
  • We need to challenge the idea that debt is a natural part of economic life and instead work towards a more equitable and just economic system.


“Many hold that by floating the dollar, Nixon converted the U.S. currency into pure “fiat money”—mere pieces of paper, intrinsically worthless, that were treated as money only because the United States government insisted that they should be.”

“(Henry Ford once remarked that if ordinary Americans ever found out how the banking system really worked, there would be a revolution tomorrow.)”

“… the fact that it [the US] can, at will, drop bombs with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capacity. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together”

“money has no essence. It's not "really" anything; therefore, its nature has always been and presumably always will be a matter of political conten­tion.”

“if we have the means to build them, why shouldn’t they? Are there families who don’t “deserve” houses?)”

“How did we get here? My own suspicion is that we are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself. In fact, it could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world - in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s - with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win.”

“About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.”

“[A] great embarrassing fact… haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.”

“Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and immediately assess them only in terms of what he could get for them in the market? Surely, he can only have been a thief.”

“For me, this is exactly what's so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money -- and then tell us that it's only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money.”

“Cancel all student loan debt? But that would be unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans!” Let me assure the reader that, as someone who struggled for years to pay back his student loans and finally did so, this argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be “unfair” to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbors too.)”

“I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren’t hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”

“As it turns out, we don't "all" have to pay our debts. Only some of us do.”

“What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.”


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