David Graeber traces a line from Roman property law, through Cartesian dualism and Hobbes’ state of nature, to the foundational myth of the free market:
At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.
David Graeber (2011) ‘Debt: The First 500 years’, p209-210.
Graeber uses an anthropologist’s view of history to argue that markets are brought into existence by the state, and particularly by an expansionist military state which wishes to force all social actors to be intermediaries in the war machine. By obliging everyone to accept state currency a state-coinage-slavery complex is created. This dynamic drives the creation of slaves, which are, by definition, people ripped from all social context. The collision of market economies with social economies (which are about interaction as much as obtaining goods) creates a moral dilemma which we can trace written in the texts of all the ancient religions (you’ll have to read the book for details). The dominant modes of human relation in historical time have been three: exchange, hierarchy and communism (not in the Marxist sense). The dominion of the exchange mode, and its perversion into being primarily market exchange, reduces the primacy of the other modes in the models of liberal/market thinkers, and so our conception of our selves (individually and politically) is contaminated by contradictory notions of debt and ownership (again, you’ll have to read the book). Ultimately this finds expression in a vision of ourselves as separate from our own bodies, and in the foundational myth of economics in which we markets come into being de novo among an asocial but equal status collection of isolates who can begin to trade to satisfy their wants.
It’s an extremely rich book, which is also very disorganised in its arguments. I’m still digesting what I’ve read so this is a poor summary. Most importantly for me, and separate from the specifics of the argument, the anthropological and historical material does the job of expanding our conception of what we and our society could be.
Pro-tip: on the final pages (p384-387) Graeber offers his own summary of the thesis of the book.