Yves here. Classicist John Siman and Michael Hudson got to know each other at NC meetup last year, which led to the series of conversations that is codified in this series. Here, Hudson describes in antiquity, how oligarchs in Greece and Rome ended the practice of debt jubilees and became rentiers.
By John Siman
Note: Michael Hudson published … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year in November of last year. It is the first volume in what will be a trilogy on the long history of the tyranny of debt. I have interviewed him extensively as he writes the second volume, The Collapse of Antiquity.
John Siman: Michael, inthe first volume of your history of debt — “
… and forgive them their debts, dealing with the Bronze Age Near East, Judaism and early Christianity — you showed how over thousands of years, going back to the invention of interest-bearing loans in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC, many kings from a variety of Mesopotamian civilizations proclaimed Clean Slate debt cancellations on a more or less regular basis. And you showed that these royal proclamations of debt amnesty rescued the lower classes from debt bondage, maintaining a workable economic balance over many centuries. Because these kings were so powerful — and, let’s say, enlightened — they were able to prevent the social and economic polarization that is inevitable when there is no check on an oligarchic creditor class extracting exponentially increasing interest from debtors.
But now, as you write the second volume, your theme gets turned upside down. You are showing how the Greeks and the Romans learned about interest-bearing debt from their contacts with Middle Eastern civilizations, but tragically failed to institute programs of Clean Slate debt amnesty. Their failure has been a kind of albatross around the neck of Western economies ever since.
So I’d like to start this conversation in the late 500s BC, because we can see at that time the beginnings of both the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, plus of two more important civilizations. First was the Athens of Cleisthenes, who had led the overthrow the “tyrant” Hippias and became the father of Athenian democracy. Second, there was the Roman Republic of Lucius Junius Brutus, who overthrew the last of Rome’s legendary kings, the “tyrant” Tarquinius Superbus.Third was the Persian civilization of Cyrus the Great. He was a “divine king,” in many ways in the ancient tradition of Hammurabi. Fourth were the post-exilic Jews of Ezra and Nehemiah, who returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple and redacted the Bible. They were the inventors of the Jubilee years of Clean Slate debt forgiveness, even though they depicted the teaching as coming from Moses.
So, beginning with the late 500s BC, to what extent was the notion of Clean Slate debt amnesty remembered, and to what extent was it rejected?
Michael Hudson: Every kind of reform, from Mesopotamia to Greece, was put forth as if it simply restored the way things were in the beginning. There was no concept of linear progress in Antiquity. They thought that there was only one way to do things, so any reform must be the way the world was meant to be in the very beginning. All reformers would say that in the beginning everybody must have been equal. Their reform was aimed at restoring this state of affairs.
That’s why, when Plutarch and even the Spartan kings in the third century BC talked about canceling debts and promoting equality, they said that they were simply restoring the original system that Lycurgus had created. But there was no sign that Lycurgus had really done these things. It was made up. Lycurgus was a legendary figure. So was Moses in the Jewish tradition. When the Bible was redacted and put together after the return from Babylon, they put debt cancellation and land redistribution —the Jubilee Year — right in the center of Mosaic Law. So it seemed that this was not an innovation, but what Moses said in the beginning. They created a Moses figure much like the Greeks created a Lycurgus figure. They said that this is how things were meant to be. This is how it was in the beginning — and it just happened to be their own program.
This was a projection backwards: a retrojection. Felix Jacoby wrote that Athenian history was that way, basically party pamphleteering projecting their ideal program back to Solon or to whomever one might choose as a good guy to model. Writers would then say that this original good guy supported the program that they were proposing in their epoch. This was the ancient analogy to “Constitutional Originalism” in the United States as a frame for right-wing policies.
JS: So, ever since the 500s BC, the surefire way to critique the status quo has been to say you are trying to go back to the Garden of Eden or to some other pristine Saturnian Golden Age.
MH: Yes, you want to say that the unfair world around you isn’t what was meant, so this couldn’t have been the original plan, because the past had to be a successful takeoff. So the program that reformers always turned out to be what the Founding Fathers meant.
JS: That’s veryinspirational!
MH: The key is to appear as a conservative, not a radical. You accuse the existing status quo as being the beneficiaries of the radicals who have distorted the original Fair Plan that you’re trying to restore.
JS: So in the 500s BC we have Cyrus — and his inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder — boasting that he freed the Babylonians from their tax debt and bonds, and we have the post-exilic Jews proclaiming d’ror [דְּרֹ֛ור] in Leviticus 25, proclaiming “liberty throughout the land.” We also have the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens, isonomia [ἰσονομία, literally, equality under the law], a genuine attempt at democracy. But let’s start with Rome. What do you want to say about the nova libertas, the “new liberty” proclaimed in Rome after the last king was expelled and the Republic was founded? Didn’t Brutus and his wellborn friends boast that they were the institutors of true liberty?
MH: Liberty for them was the liberty to destroy that of the population at large. Instead of cancelling debts and restoring land tenure to the population, the oligarchy created the Senate that protected the right of creditors to enslave labor and seize public as well as private lands (just as had occurred in Athens before Solon). Instead of restoring a status quo ante of free cultivators — free of debt and tax obligations, as Sumerian amargi and Babylonian misharumand andurarum meant — the Roman oligarchy accused anyone of supporting debtor rights and opposing its land grabs of “seeking kingship.” Such men were murdered, century after century.
Rome was turned into an oligarchy, an autocracy of the senatorial families. Their “liberty” was an early example of Orwellian Doublethink. It was to destroy everybody else’s liberty so they could grab whatever they could, enslave the debtors and create the polarized society that Rome became.
JS: OK, but this program worked. The Republic grew and grew and conquered everyone else for century after century. Then the Principate became the supreme power in the Western world for several more centuries.
MH: It worked by looting and stripping other societies. That can only continue as long as there is some society to loot and destroy. Once there were no more kingdoms for Rome to destroy, it collapsed from within. It was basically a looting economy. And it didn’t do more than the British colonialists did: It only scratched the surface. It didn’t put in place the means of production that would create enough money for them to grow productively. Essentially, Rome was a financial rentier state.
Rentiers don’t create production. They live off existing production, they don’t create it. That’s why the classical economists said they were supporting industrial capitalists, not British landlords, not monopolists and not predatory banks.
JS: This has all been forgotten, both in the United States and in England —
MH: Let’s say, expurgated from the curriculum.
JS: Worse than forgotten!
MH: That’s why you don’t have any history of economic thought taught anymore in the United States. Because then you’d see that Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the “Ricardian socialists” and indeed most of the 19th century had a completely opposite idea of what constituted a free market.
JS: Opposite? How so?
MH: Opposite from the neoliberal idea that freedom means freedom for the wealthy to indebt and destroy the economy. Opposite from the liberty of Brutus to overthrow the Roman kings and establish an autocratic oligarchy.
JS: So do we want to see the Roman kings as defenders of the people — defending them from predatory oligarchs?
MH: Yes, especially Servius Tullius. There was a great flowering of Rome, making it attractive to immigrants by making the city livable for newcomers. They did this because at that time, in the 6th century BC, all societies had a shortage of labor. Labor was the factor of production in short supply, not land. Not even in Athens was land in short supply in the 6th and 5th centuries. You needed labor, and so you had to make it attractive for immigrants to join your society instead of having your people run away, as they would in a society run by creditors reducing clients to bondage.
JS: So you are writing about how Roman liberty was actually the liberty of oligarchic creditors frompopulist pressures for debt forgiveness. What of the d’ror of Leviticus 25 — the liberty of the postexilic Jews? Did they actually proclaim years of Jubilee in which debts were forgiven and bondservants were returned to their families?
MH: After the Babylonian Jews returned to Jerusalem, I’m sure that they said that it was time for the land to be returned to its original owners — and their families, by the way, were the original owners who were exiled in the Babylonian Captivity. I rely largely on Baruch Levine for this idea of the ge’ullah [גְּאֻלָּה], saying give us back our ancestral lands. [See thecolloquium Levine and Hudson co-edited on Land and Urbanization in the Ancient Near East, and their preceding volume on ancient privatization.] There must have been some kind of settlement along those lines. Unfortunately, the Judaic lands did not keep their records on on clay tablets that could be thrown out and recovered thousands of years later. We don’t have any record of their economic history after the Return.
JS: Now I’ve brought along the transcriptions of several Egyptian papyri for you to look at. I also want to show you a papyrus in Aramaic from Judæa. It’s not direct evidence that the post-exilic Jews were having Jubilee years, but it’s indirect evidence, because it says that a particular debt has to be paid, even during a time of general debt amnesty, even if it falls due in a shmita [שמיטה], a sabbath year. So it sounds like the Jews were finding loopholes —
MH: It certainly sounds like it! Babylonian creditors tried a similar ploy, but this was disallowed. (We have court records confirming the realm’s misharumacts.)
JS: In the Mosaic commandments to forgive debt, can we infer that there was some sort of program of debt forgiveness in place already in place in postexilic Jerusalem?
MH: Yes, but it ended with Rabbi Hillel and the Prozbul clause. Debtors had to sign this clause at the end of their debt contracts saying that they waived their rights under the Jubilee year in order to get a loan. That was why Jesus fought against the Pharisees and the rabbinical leadership. That’s what Luke 4 is all about [And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord”= the Jubilee year.] Luke also pointed out that the Pharisees loved money!
JS: Let me ask you about Egypt here. Unfortunately, as you said, the postexilic Jews did not leave us any clay tablets and almost no papyri, but we do have loads of papyri concerning the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. So from, say, 300 B.C. to the death of Cleopatra, we have official evidence that the Egyptian kings proclaimed debt amnesties. Maybe one of the reasons, or perhaps the main reason for this, is because they were so powerful, like the Mesopotamian kings. So even though the Ptolemaic kings were biologically and genetically Macedonian Greek — married to their sisters, too — they aspired to rule in the ancient Egyptian pharaonic tradition of We Are God-Kings and We Own Everything in the Kingdom.
MH: Certainly the Hellenistic kings had the ancient pharaonic Sed festivals, which go back thousands of years and were a kind of jubilee. The Egyptians had regular debt cancellations, because under the pharaohs the debts that would have been cancelled were basically tax debts. They were owed to the crown, so he was cancelling debts owed to himself ultimately. And we see this thousands of years later in the trilingual stone, the Rosetta Stone, which the priests wrote for that young boy who was Ptolemy V. They explained to him that this is how Egypt always had done it, and to act as a pharaoh, he had to do the same.
JS: And I think it is worth pointing out here that the same verb-plus-noun combination for forgiving debts that the priests used in Greek on the Rosetta Stone is also used by Matthew in the Lord’s Prayer [ἀφῆκεν/ἄφες ὀφειλήματα, aphēken/aphes opheilēmata]. It shows up in lots of papyri. The same Greek verb and noun, again and again and again.
But let’s go back to the Greeks of the 500s BC. They are a couple of hundred years out of their Dark Age, so their society has been reconstituted after the demographic wipeout. It’s been reconstituted, but without Near Eastern-style “divine kingship” and its Clean Slate proclamations. Just the opposite. Socrates had conversations with the rhapsodes who had memorized and recited the Iliad. Even in their great epic, the Greeks’ legendary king of kings Agamemnon comes across as a kind of narcissistic loser. How would you describe Greek kingship, especially the so-called tyrants?
MH: There never really were Greek kings of the type found throughout the Bronze Age Near East and surviving into the first millennium in Assyria and even in Persia. The Greek polities that emerged from their Dark Age were run by what shrewd Classicists call mafiosi, something like the post-Soviet kleptocrats. They formed closed political monopolies reducing local populations to clientage and dependency. In one polity after another they were overthrown and exiled, mainly by aristocratic reformers from the elite families (often secondary branches, as was Solon). Later oligarchic writers called them “tyrants” as an invective, much as the word rex— king —became an invective in oligarchic Rome.
These tyrant-reformers consolidated their power by redistributing land from the leading families (or in Sparta, land conquered from Messenia, along with its population reduced to helotage) to the citizen-army at large all over Greece – except in Athens. That was one of the most reactionary cities in the 7th century, as shown by what is known about the laws of Draco. After some abortive coups in the seventh century, Solon was appointed in 594 to avoid the kind of revolution that had led reformer “tyrants” to overthrow narrow aristocracies in neighboring Megara and Corinth. Solon decreed a half-way reform, abolishing debt slavery (but not the debtor’s obligation to work off debts with his own labor), and did not redistribute Athenian land from the city’s elites.
Athens was one of the last to reform but then because it was such a badly polarized autocratic society, it swung — like Newton’s Third Law of Motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction — it swung to become the most democratic of all the Greek polities.
Some historians in the past speculated that Solon might somehow have been influenced by Judaic law or other Near Eastern practice, but this is not realistic. I think Solon was simply a pragmatist responding to widespread demands that he do what the reformers — the so-called tyrants — were doing throughout Greece. He didn’t redistribute the land like they did, but he at least ended outright debt slavery. Free debtors (mainly cultivators on the land) were being seized and sold outside of Athens to slave dealers. Solon also tried to recover some of the land that wealthy families had grabbed. At least, that’s what he wrote in his poems describing his actions.
So to answer your question, I think debt cancellations were not a diffusionist policy from the East, but a spontaneous pragmatic response such as was being widely advocated as far west as Rome with its Secession of the Plebs a century later — followed by much of Greece in the 4th century BC, and Sparta’s kings in the late 3rd century BC.
Poorer Athenians were so angry with Solon for being not revolutionary enough that he went into exile for 10 years. The real creators of Athenian democracy were Peisistratos [died 528/7 BC], his sons, also called tyrants, and then Cleisthenes in 507. He was a member of the wealthy but outcast family, the Alcmaeonidae, who had been expelled in the 7th century. Solon had allowed them to return, and they were backed by Delphi (to which the family contributed heavily). Cleisthenes fought against the other oligarchic families and restructured Athenian politics on the basis of locality instead of clan membership. Servius Tullius is credited for enacting much the same reform in Rome. Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society  described this restructuring of voting districts as the great watershed creation of western-style democracy.
JS: Let me go back now to the way Athens and the other poleis emerged from the Dark Age.
MH: Judging from the art and pottery, Greece didn’t begin to recover until the 8th century BC.
JS: So we’re talking about the 700s BC. As Greece was learning from the Near Eastern civilizations, everything from mythology to the alphabet to weights and measures —
MH: And commercial practices, credit practices.
JS: Yes, all this came from the Near East, including the practice of charging interest. But what about Clean Slate debt amnesty? I want to argue logically here — not from any hard historical evidence, but only deductively — that the Greeks would have wanted the concept of Clean Slate debt forgiveness, they would have wanted to learn this too from the Near East, but they could not do it because they were always going to lack a Hammurabi-style “divine king.”
MH: I think you miss the whole point of how Western civilization evolved here. First of all, who “wanted” Near Eastern kingship? Certainly not the emerging oligarchies. The ruling elites wanted to use interest-bearing debt to enrich themselves – by obtaining control over the labor power of debtors.
Second, I don’t think the Greeks and Italians knew about Near Eastern royal proclamations, except as an alien practice much further East than Asia Minor. Falling into debt was a disaster for the poor, but a means for their Western patrons to gain power, land and wealth. There is no record of anyone suggesting that they should be in the Near East. The connection between the Near East and Greece or Italy was via traders. If you’re a Phoenician or Syrian merchant with the Aegean or Italy, you’re going to set up a temple as an intermediary, typically on an island. Such temples became the cosmopolitan meeting places where you had the oligarchs of the leading families of Greek cities visiting each other as part of a Pan-Hellenic group. You could say that Delphi was the “Davos” of its day.
It was through these trading centers that culture diffused – via the wealthiest families who travelled and established relationships with other leading families. Finance and trade have always been cosmopolitan. These families learned about debt obligations and contracts from the Near East, and ended up reducing much of their local populations to clientage, without kings to overrule them. That would have been the last thing they wanted.
JS: So absent Hammurabi-style “divine kingship,” is debt bondage and brutal polarization almost inevitably going to happen in any society that adopts interest-bearing debt?
MH: We see a balance of forces in the ancient Near East, thanks to the fact that its rulers had authority to cancel debt and restore land that wealthy individuals had taken from smallholders. These kings were powerful enough to prevent the rise of oligarchies that would reduce the population to debt peonage and bondage (and in the process, deprive the palace of revenue and corvée labor, and even the military service of debtors owing their labor to their private creditors). We don’t have any similar protection in today’s Western Civilization. That’s what separates Western Civilization from the earlier Near Eastern stage. Modern financialized civilization has stripped away the power to prevent a land-grabbing creditor oligarchy from controlling society and its laws.
So you could characterize Western Civilization is being decadent. It’s reducing populations to austerity on a road to debt peonage. Today’s new oligarchy calls this a “free market,” but it is the opposite of freedom. You can think of the Greek and Roman decontextualization of Near Eastern economic regulations as if the IMF had been put in charge of Greece and Rome, poisoning its legal and political philosophy at the outset. So Western Civilization may be just a vast detour. That’s what my forthcoming book, The Collapse of Antiquity, is all about. That will be the second volume in my trilogy on the history of debt.
JS: So are we just a vast detour?
MH: We have to restore a balanced economy where the oligarchy is controlled, so as to prevent the financial sector from impoverishing society, imposing austerity and reducing the population to clientage and debt serfdom.
JS: How do you do that without a Hammurabi-style “divine kingship”?
MH: You need civil law to do what Near Eastern kings once did. You need a body of civil law with a strong democratic government acting to shape markets in society’s overall long-term interest, not that of the One Percent obtaining wealth by impoverishing the 99 Percent. You need civil law that protects the population from an oligarchy whose business plan is to accumulate wealth in ways that impoverish the economy at large. This requires a body of civil law that would cancel debts when they grow too large for the population to pay. That probably requires public banking and credit – in other words, deprivatization of banking that has become dysfunctional.
All this requires a mixed economy, such as the Bronze Age Near Eastern economies were. The palace, temples, private sector and entrepreneurs acted as checks and balances on each other. Western Civilization isn’t a mixed economy. Socialism was an attempt to create a mixed economy, but the oligarchs fought back. What they call a “free market” is an unmixed monolithic, centrally planned financialized economy with freedom for the oligarchy to impoverish the rest of society. That was achieved by landlordism monopolizing the land in feudal Europe, and it is done by finance today.
end of part 1