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Anthropologist David Graeber draws upon his research to challenge established wisdom over the moral power of debt, the origins of money and the definition of money itself.

Anthropologist David Graeber explores the history of debt and the peculiar moral hold that debt hold over us, from earliest financial transactions to the classical age.

In this first episode, David draws upon his years of groundbreaking research to challenge established wisdom over the moral power of debt, the origins of money and even the definition of money itself (a remarkably contentious issue).

David argues that whenever we think about debt we end up in a deep moral confusion. We resent the "deadbeats" who fail to pay us back and yet many of us believe that people who get us into debt - money lenders - are, at best, immoral.

It turns out that debts have a very different meaning when there is a power imbalance between debtor and creditor. Normally, when a debt is between equals it can be renegotiated and even written off entirely. However when the creditor has all the power, debts transform into absolute imperatives that must be repaid, no matter what the cost.

David goes on to explore the theology of debt. The Bible is peppered with the language of debt. Sin, forgiveness, reckoning, redemption - all of these words actually derive from the language of ancient finance. What's more, this seems to be true in all the great religious traditions - not just Judaism and Christianity, but Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam - all of their texts are filled with financial metaphors, many of which relate to issues surrounding debt.

To conclude, David examines debt in the Classical period. It was during this age that coinage first emerged as an efficient way of paying soldiers. He explains that the spread of coinage had enormous political and intellectual consequences.

Presenter: David Graeber
Producer: Max O'Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

58 minutes