In chapter 8 Graeber veers perilously close to proposing a meta-narrative, something I’m highly suspicious of. That said, it is a really compelling story.
Essentially he points out that slavery has been abolished many times in many places, not just once in 19th century America. The rise and then abolition of slavery seems to be a cycle attached to the rise and fall of money and debt as primary cultural drivers. That is, in certain periods human economies marked by credit arrangements between neighbors where debts aren’t negotiable instruments transferable to third parties (basically where money is less involved) there is a trend toward abolition of slavery. In other periods marked by the rise of bullion and debts being transferable in precisely quantified units slavery returns.
Around 500BC credit systems long in place all around the world began being augmented or replaced by coinage and slavery swelled into prominence. Then, around 600AD as coinage was drying up the trend was slowing into reverse. It has been quite a mystery to historians why the supposed “dark ages” saw the institution of slavery, which had been widespread under Rome, largely vanish. Graeber doesn’t think it’s all that mysterious: slavery requires humans to be treated as commodities in a culture where such things are readily transferable (monetized), and upheld by institutionalized violence. As Roman coins and the Roman legions receded so did slavery.
What this leads to is the question of where we currently sit in this credit/bullion cycle. In the next several chapters Graeber intends to provide an overview of our history to try to explain whether it is credit or bullion that is currently ascendent and how our experiences relate to previous similar periods of human civilization.