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One morning, when I was a boy, I woke to the sound of shouting, then giggles and clinking bangles. I went downstairs to find my mother and aunt gently fighting with their wrists. The ritualized clash – a pat-a-cake for adults – had been demanded by my aunt for giving us a too-generous gift. Its receipt was being acknowledged with gentle blows. It may sound exotic, but this is a commonplace. They may not always involve bangles, but elaborate "no, you shouldn't haves" are a part of everyone's life. Why, though, do we have these rituals?

I was reminded of my mother's sparring by David Graeber's terrific new book, Debt. In the best anthropological tradition, he helps us reset our everyday ideas by exploring history and other civilizations, then boomeranging back to render our own world strange, and more open to change.

He tells, for instance, of the Tiv, residents of rural Nigeria with elaborate rituals of exchange spiked with a dark secret. Among the Tiv, it is known that the society of witches recruits by tricking someone into eating human flesh. After that, two things might happen. Ordinary people simply run screaming from the table. But those with the seed of a witch in their hearts are burdened with a flesh debt, doomed to give their family to be served on other witches' tables.

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Only the most powerful and charismatic men are susceptible to the flesh debt. Although everyone wants to become powerful and attractive, it's a way of curbing a love of too much power. In the egalitarian world of the Tiv, the story prevents anyone from becoming too big for their boots, lest they be forced to cook their children.

Power and charisma used to be suspect in our own culture. Those who accumulated power, who manufactured and traded in credit, have generally not been loved. As Graeber notes, it's impossible to find happy stories about usurers in most cultures. Late capitalism is a strange exception. Bankers may be derided, but they continue to accumulate power and money, their social necessity defended by, say, Niall Ferguson, who suggests that poverty isn't about rapacious financiers exploiting the poor, but the absence of bankers for the poor.

Given bailouts for the wealthy and austerity for the poor, this is a tough case to make. What Graeber does is open the door to thinking more deeply about why bankers exist in the first place. Is the solution to poverty really about making microloans available (often at high rates of interest) so that "untapped" capital can be made to work? Or might we imagine our responsibilities to one another in different ways?

Graeber suggests that we can. For him, debt is "a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals, and who are not currently in a state of equality – but for whom there is some way to set matters straight." It's a lovely definition because it reminds us of the possibility of equality. Of course, it also throws into stark relief the debt we're familiar with today, invariably based on the opposite of equality.

Getting back to equality means breaking with a conception of human relations as a series of purely selfish transactions. In spotting the roots of the idea that we're all basically selfish individuals in European thinking barely 500 years old, Graeber makes his case powerfully. Along the way, he helps explain why our modern talk is shot through with the language of debt, offering a theory of the rise of religion along the way. Why, after all, is Christ the Redeemer? What gets cashed in?

This is a big book of big ideas: Within its 500 pages, you'll find a theory of capitalism, religion, the state, world history and money, with evidence reaching back more than 5,000 years, from the Inuit to the Aztecs, the Mughals to the Mongols. Graeber might, though, have offered more about how debt happens within the home, and how people have sought to reconfigure relations of debt.

We're left with only one concrete idea about what to do next, but it's one that has precedent in many societies: a jubilee, a wiping-clean of the slate, in which we are reminded that the balance at the bank is not all we are, and that we might refashion our relations with one another differently, and better. If that ever comes about, we'll owe David Graeber one.

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Raj Patel is an academic and activist whose most recent book is The Value of Nothing.

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