Joe Brewer writes at Common Dreams:
Just for fun, imagine if all debt were wiped away when the Mayan Calendar ends this Friday…
How would the world be different? What would become possible for you personally in your life? How would nations and corporations invest our newfound wealth differently if we all started from a clean slate? Problems like global warming and extreme poverty would instantly become financial drops in the bucket—easily tackled with fair contracts and forward-looking investments. The structural debts of entrenched subsidies, invested capital, tax havens, and trade agreements that keep them from being addressed would simply no longer exist.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well just such a fantasy used to be standard practice in the Hebrew Tradition throughout the early days of their civilization. They held a great Jubilee every seven years to erase all debt and end economic slavery. Accounts kept on stone tablets were broken. Those stored on papyrus were burned to ash. Slaves were returned to their families. Everyone was given a fresh start. (This tradition is being revived today through the Occupy-inspired project, Rolling Jubilee, that has already abolished more than $9,000,000 in US debt for everyday citizens.)
The Invention of Debt
What you may not know is that debt arose recently on the human stage. Throughout more than 99% of our history we have not even had a concept for debt. (The interested reader can pick up David Graeber’s excellent book Debt: The First 5000 Years for full story.)
Anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer societies reveal that there were no barter systems, no currencies to use for money, and — in the absence of these cultural artifacts — there was no debt. With all the great variation cross cultures one might expect from ethnographic research, the anthropologists found that some tribal communities engaged in “gift economies” where status arises from how generous a person is who has acquired wealth, while others have remained egalitarian and non-hierarchical for thousands of years by sharing their food and materials based on the principles of “from each as they are able, to each as they need.”
This belies the great misunderstanding about communism that treats it as a state-centric governing system, when in truth it is the foundational sentiment of any community that builds upon the trust and good will of social relations between people who know and depend upon one another — a condition that has held for all hunter-gatherer societies throughout our long 200,000 year history as a species.
Pick up an economics textbook at random and you will find a classic (and false) “just so” story about the need for barter systems to have money. They all go something like this: Steve has potatoes and needs some shoes. Bob has shoes but does not need any potatoes. They are unable to directly exchange goods due to this mismatch of need, and so must introduce a money system to preserve the value of currency across multiple exchanges that enable Steve to sell his potatoes to Sue and acquire money that he can then use to pay Bob for a pair of shoes. What this simple narrative conceals is the broad evidence from ancient cultures studied by anthropologists that no such problem arises in this way.
What really happens is that a warring society has arisen somewhere (to get a sense of how this happens, read my article about psychopaths and agrarian city states) and is in a mode of conquest. When this burgeoning empire conquers new land, the ruler imposes a system of taxation on the local populace to pay for the costs of war. This imposition of scarcity, by extracting resources from the local population to be hoarded by the warrior chieftain, is what leads to the emergence of barter systems and — in some instances — the introduction of a money system by the ruler.
Read more here.