Michael Cordell's Blog


Debt is not a book whose message can be boiled down to a few bullet points. It is a lengthy study of the power of debt, and how it shapes human society. As the author states in the introductory chapter, “This book is a history of debt, then but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like — what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”. Consider the morality surrounding debt and credit. If someone was unable to pay their debts, or even is just deeply in debt, that person is often viewed as weak of character. On the other side: we similarly view usury, or even more mildler forms of lending, in a negative or at least distasteful fashion (think loan shark or Shakespeare’s Shylock). On top of this, Graeber layers the interplay of debt and religion. Why do Christians refer to Jesus Christ as a redeemer? On the same note, why does Christ cast out the money lenders in the Cleansing of the Temple. Why are Jewish people associated with money lending (usually negatively) Graeber notes that this likely arose out of the exclusion of Jews from other professions in the middle ages combined with interesting interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:19–20 ? At the same time that money lending is often portrayed negatively by religion, through out the middle ages in both eastern and western cultures, the local church or monastery often functioned as a money lender. It is these types of close examinations of society and debt that make this book worthwhile.

Graeber spends the first part of the book as an anthropological study of debt, examining some of the questions, along with fundamentals such as the origin of money. The second half of the book is a methodical history of debt from early 3500 BC to current times. I recommend this as a simply because of its depth and the way it challenged my conception of debt and societal mores.

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