Questioning the obligation to pay back debt

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

It's membership time. Cultivate Canada's media. Support Become a member.

If you'd like a titillating read this summer, let me propose Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber. It's a book that dares to question "the very assumption that debts have to be repaid." In all honesty, did you not just feel a shudder of moral revulsion at the thought along perhaps with the thrill of the forbidden? That's what's titillating. Graeber, an economist/anthropologist, asks how debt managed to become "the most profound moral obligation in our reality." People are readier to condone and forgive -- or at least consider doing so -- murder, theft, betrayal; how on earth did that happen? To find an answer he goes back five millennia and advances stealthily toward the bizarre present.

Graeber isn't totally hostile to debt. On the contrary. He sees it as a basic part of being human. We're all in debt: to God or the cosmos for existence, to each other for daily needs, to ancestors for language and heritage, to posterity and the future. It's a universal metaphor that got perverted. How? By being quantified and reduced to a specific number in a particular currency. In earlier times (here's where his anthropology comes in) debts weren't quantifiable: they were associated with marriages, funerals, blood debts (revenge etc.); they were rooted in social connections and based on trust or honour. In a way they could never be fully paid since they correlated with real people. Part of their point was to remind us that a unique human life can't be translated into any other terms.

When debts were quantified into money, they were removed from those concrete contexts; they became transferable and abstract. Enter the law, jail, shame, fear, desperation, and here we are today. You'll prefer the book-length version but it's pretty persuasive. I have a friend who's spent her life working, usually for tiny financial returns, on behalf of those who get the short end of the stick in this society. She often lends money to friends, always happily accepting that she may never get it back. Yet she hates owing money herself, tries frantically to avoid it and to pay it back swiftly when she does. Meanwhile the richest and most undeserving demand and get bailouts for stupid or criminal acts and go on to behave exactly as before. It's these gobsmacking paradoxes that Graeber is out to above all understand. His moral judgments are secondary.

I admire two things especially about the book. One is how much Graeber knows. He actually seems to have read the books in his bibliography. He praises a classic work by Ben Nelson called The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood -- the title alone is worth more than most full books but I'd forgotten it and I once worked for Nelson. The other is Graeber's optimism, though cheerfulness may be a better term. He sees hopeful signs in the (misnamed) anti-globalization and Occupy movements, Argentina's triumphant 2001 default, an East Asian boycott of the IMF -- the resistance is out there. He's undepressed by how it's "increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable" at the very moment that we "have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination" for devising alternate approaches. This failure seems to energize him, as if it's a golden chance for everyone to jump in and suggest fixes for the disaster. Nor is he against markets, just so-called free ones (where slaves were freely traded); he even argues that you could have thriving markets without capitalism.

This buoyancy sets off Graeber's leftism -- he's an anarchist and activist as well as a prof -- from admirable gloommongers on the left like Chris Hedges, who wrote this week: "We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us." Graeber would definitely be more fun to be arrested with. Of course adopting a purview that goes back 5,000 years probably helps you gather some perspective and take the tough stuff in your stride.

And his book isn't even as long as last summer's doorstoppers, about the girl with the dragon tattoo.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.