David Graeber takes an anthropologist's view of money and debt, looking at evidence outside the purview of economists such as Vedic texts, and anthropologists' accounts. He finds some foundations of economics to be unsupported by evidence, and goes so far as to reflect on economists' predilections for particular interpretations - making this book a veritable slaughterhouse of economists' sacred cows.
Graeber shows, for example, that not only has there never been any evidence that money evolved from barter, but that for over a century, there has been a lot of evidence that it didn't. Disregarding such conventional wisdom, he describes a very different picture of the world's economic history, one in which money and debt are not impartial, amoral facts of economic life, but go hand in hand with state sponsored imperial violence and exploitation.
His exposure of the false dichotomy between states and markets reveals centuries of economic discussions to be vain. Graeber cites a mass of historical evidence that 'the market' is not a quasi-natural phenomenon that emerges in spite of government, but has frequently required careful manipulation by governments firstly to bring it about at all (usually first in connection with soldiers) and then to maintain it. He mixes insights from psychology, anthropology and history to paint an unconventional but compelling picture of the impact of money, one that differs sharply from the flattering fables spun by highly paid economists and economic historians. Indeed, he suggests we think hard about the very idea of considering 'the economy' to be separate from other facets of life.
Several themes recur throughout the 5 millennia of history which make up the book, such as the oscillation between credit systems that rely on a degree of social affinity and neighborliness and the use of precious metals and cash which do not. Another main theme with a particular of relevance to the modern reader is the perpetually recurring debt crises in which a huge proportion of the population had been reduced to debt slaves or one form or another. It has been very favorably reviewed, with Charles Eisenstein referring to it as "a breathtaking work of scholarship" and another reviewer terming it "a work of immense erudition"..