How Debt Dynamics Polarize Economic and Political Power

Yves here. Michael Hudson has graciously provided us with an overview of his new book, The Collapse of Antiquity: Greece and Rome as Civilization’s Oligarchic Turning Point. It looks at how interest-rate created debt overhangs cement creditor power, creating a class of oligarchs. His new book contends this power shift began in the Greco-Roman era. Hudson below provides a broad historical sweep.

Some additions: the idea of “free markets” as a justification of creditor power is relatively recent, and the libertarian anarchist Milton Friedman was one of the most effective salesman for this ideology. The earlier formulation was “free enterprise” which conveyed the idea that the purpose was to build companies.

By Michael Hudson, a research professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. His latest book is The Collapse of Antiquity: Greece and Rome as Civilization’s Oligarchic Turning Point

Interest-bearing debt grows exponentially, accumulating faster than the economy’s the ability to pay. That growth has increased the power of creditors throughout history, causing crises if the expansion path of debt is not checked by debt writedowns.

Ancient Near Eastern monarchies created such checks when they introduced interest-bearing debt in the third millennium BC. To prevent a creditor oligarchy from emerging to concentrate land ownership, rulers proclaimed Clean Slates that prevented the buildup of agrarian debt from leading to the irreversible loss of personal liberty and land rights. Maintaining self-support land tenure for cultivators preserved their corvée labor obligation to work on public construction projects and serve in the army. In the mid-first millennium BC Judaism adopted such “restorations of order” from Babylonia in the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25).

The increasing commercialization of life enabled oligarchies to emerge in Greece and Rome, imposing debt bondage and concentrating land ownership in their own hands after overthrowing Rome’s kings in 509 BC. Half a millennium of increasingly violent civil warfare were unable to cancel debts and redistribute land, culminating in the failed revolt of Catiline and the assassination of Julius Caesar.

In Judea, Jesus announced that he had come to restore the Jubilee Year, and the Lord’s Prayer from his Sermon on the Mount called for forgiving debts. His Christian followers denounced usury in their councils, but upon becoming Rome’s official state religion in the 4th century the Church turned away from its early focus on protecting debtors. The Lord’s Prayer wording was re-interpreted to focus on inborn personal sin in the wake of Augustine’s theological victory over the pro-debtor Donatists in North Africa.

Medieval European life became largely local, with agrarian economies using money mainly as a unit-of-account to settle debts at harvest time. The economic surplus concentrated mainly in monastery estates. Church and State were made symbiotic in 800 by Leo III blessing Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. Subsequent popes sanctified the Norman conquests of Sicily by Robert Guiscard in 1059 and of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 in exchange for their pledging their kingdoms as fiefdoms of Rome.

After 1094 the papacy used the Crusades to mobilize large military forces. That required credit, and warfare always has been the main force obliging rulers to borrow. With most lending being to rulers and churches to wage war, the papacy took the lead in abandoning Christianity’s early opposition to interest-bearing debt. The 13th-century Schoolmen drew a legalistic distinction between permissible commercial interest and usury, leaving wide loopholes for credit by the Lombard and Cahorsin bankers sponsored by the papacy. The fact that these bankers were beyond the power of local rulers to tax them left Jewish creditors with little royal fiscal function. England and France confiscated the property of Jews and then expelled them toward the end of the 13th century.

When England’s nobility pressed for parliamentary reform in the Magna Carta (1215) to limit Henry III’s power to raise taxes and take on papal debts to finance Rome’s wars, the papacy backed autocratic royal authority and excommunicated the parliamentary opposition. But after Edward III defaulted in the 14th century, dragging down his Italian bankers with him, creditors began to press for parliamentary reform to make war debts owed by the entire nation, not limited to the royal household. By the 16th century that insistence on parliamentary liability for national war debts enabled the Dutch Republic to gain a military advantage and win its freedom from autocratic Habsburg Spain.

Throughout history, the way in which societies have coped with the dynamics of interest-bearing debt has been the major dynamic transforming the character of their government and its legal philosophy. Military duress enables creditors to insist that governments pledge collateral in the form of land and mineral rights, using debt pressure to privatize the public domain and force creation of monopoly privileges. England created monopolies for trade with India and other regions starting in 1600, followed by the Bank of England with its privilege of privatizing money issue in 1694. The South Sea Company was founded in 1711, emulating France’s Mississippi Company. Both countries organized a debt-for-equity swap, exchanging shares in the great growth industry of the day – the Atlantic slave trade and plantation agriculture – for government bonds. Financial bubbles ever since have been organized by governments trying to free themselves from debt.

The Pro-Creditor Mythology of How Economies Might Operate Without Debt Problems

As modern industrial capitalism has evolved into finance capitalism, creditor interests oppose the ability of governments to create their own money to finance public spending. The aim is to make governments borrow from bankers and bondholders, giving them interest as well as control over what gets funded.

The ideological umbrella for this power grab is to accuse governments of interfering with “free markets,” that is, with the financial sector’s ability to act as society’s central planner in allocating credit. Debt creation is seen only as helping economies grow, not as inflating asset prices for housing, stocks and bonds, obliging homebuyers and retirees to run further into debt to afford access to housing and retirement income. Society’s economic ideology is transformed to accept the concentration of wealth in creditor hands as a natural phenomenon, not a predatory power grab at the expense of society’s overall prosperity.

Automatic stabilizers are said to make government regulation unnecessary, and credit (that is, debt creation) is depicted as productive, not corrosive. What really is at issue is not whether governments are strong or weak as such, but whether they act in the broad public interest to limit creditor claims on the increasingly indebted economy, or protect creditor privileges as “rights” over those of debtors. It is as if business “cycles” do not recur in the context of steadily rising debt/income and debt/asset ratios.

Credit can finance economic growth best when organized as a public utility. But private creditors and bankers seek financial gains for themselves, maximizing claims on debtors without limit. A jockeying for dominance ensues as the magnitude of debt grows to exceed the ability of debtors to pay. Private creditors translate their economic gains into political power, polarizing the distribution of wealth and income by deregulating and untaxing financial gains. These laws of motion produce an oscillation between financial drives gaining dominance over society and a reaction by society as it realizes that the “cleanup costs” of debt are much like those of physical environmental pollution, pushing the overall social balance into deficit.

The interaction between financial dynamics and the economy at large has changed the character of government throughout history. Mesopotamian rulers annulled grain debts, but classical antiquity’s oligarchies used state power to prevent debt cancellation. Christianity took the side of debtors, but the medieval papacy supported English kings, excommunicating advocates of parliamentary checks and balances. Subsequent creditors pressed for parliamentary reform to make entire nations responsible for paying debts, but pressure is rising today to restore public control to subordinate debts – and hence their counterpart creditor claims on debtors – to social needs.

There is some analogy here to what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls the “selfish gene” with its drive to replicate itself and grow. A struggle for survival occurs as the dynamic of interest-bearing credit seeks to break free of public control and make the debt overhead irreversible, while the host economy seeks to protect itself from being drained and polarized. A narrowing oligarchy of bondholders press for rent-extracting privileges, privatizing natural resources and monopolies away from the increasingly indebted public domain.

These debt dynamics threaten to run wild in excess of the economy’s ability to pay. To deter public perception of the need to subordinate financial claims to the economy’s own self-preservation, creditors seek to distract attention away from how today’s world is repeating the age-old strains between creditors and debtors, and how debt’s exponential dynamics have led to crises and collapse throughout history.

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  1. Barnes

    If the dynamics of credit creation and repayment became unbalanced repeatedly, due to exponential dynamics, did economies in islamic countries without interest bearing loans fare different in their pursuit o develop a lasting business cycle historically?

  2. The Rev Kev

    I might bring up the point that not all “debts” are the same. When we first moved up to our State, I was impressed at the financial philosophy of the State government at the time. They would for example borrow money to pay for a toll road because they knew that the tolls would eventually extinguish the debt arising from the money borrowed and after that the tolls would pay for the maintenance of that highway itself. But if they built a police station for example which acted as a service, then they would take that money from taxes raised. But that was then and this is now.

    But in the past few decades so much money has been artificially created that it had to go somewhere to chase any sort of return. And as of last year, world debt was about US$305 trillion – and growing rapidly. The Feds in many countries are raising interest rates to fight inflation but I wonder if what we need is a long period of deflation. Need it be said that all this money and debt sloshing around the world is being used by the billionaire class to finance their grab for power by funding politicians, think tanks, political campaigns, etc. which threatens those countries themselves.

    1. eg

      Deflation is worse for debtors than inflation — I think the solution you’re looking for in support of working people is debt jubilee.

  3. GramSci

    A lucid overview of themes we’ve here been watching Dr. Hudson develop over the last decade.

    Thank you, Dr. Hudson! Looking forward to reading the book.

  4. spud

    in the u.s.a., the oligarchs won under woodrew wilson, and by 1993, cemented their power under bill clinton.

  5. chuck roast

    Many years ago I was sitting in a church in Siena marveling at all of the fine marble, wood and glass. For the worshipers of 500 years ago it must have been like spending a bit of time in heaven. It was both immoral and borderline illegal for non-Jews to collect interest on a debt, but this sin could be easily washed away by tithing to the clergy. It was in Siena that I realized that there must have been a church industrial complex extant all over Europe for centuries. Build a church, empower the clergy, employ the neighbors, and wash away your sins.

    1. some guy

      Interesting how the Churchly Authorities of that time and place declared collecting interest on a debt immoral and borderline illegal and certainly dishonorable for a non-Jew to do, and then declare that the immoral, borderline illegal and dishonorable people known as ” the Jews” would be allowed to do it. That way the Churchly Authorities and the society they ruled could keep and enjoy all the benefits of collecting interest on debts while preserving the dishonored status of Jews and the dishonored status of collecting interest on a debt preserved and maintained.

  6. irrational

    Particularly fascinated by how royal debts became everyone’s debt and that it provided an advantage in fighting wars. I had not thought about this, but would have probably linked it to the mid-1800s revolutions which devolved power to the people to some extent (people being male, white and not poor).

    1. Michael Hudson

      Royal debts could go bankrupt, as Edward III’s did breaking the Peruzzi etc.
      Creditors stopped lending to kings, and insisted on Parliaments (starting with Holland) obligating the entire economy to pay — the national revenue, not just that of the king’s bedchamber.

  7. Gulag

    “Credit can finance economic growth best when organized as a public utility.”

    This is a topic which should be subject to an in-depth discussion and debate. Is it in fact the case that removing the ability of commercial banks, especially small community banks, to create money via credit origination, is the best way or only reasonable way to have government act in the best interest of its people?

    Are there any valid arguments for proposing that, for example, 5,000 small/community banks rather than a public utility or a powerful Central Bank or 5 to big-to-fail mega-banks be the only institutions allowed to create credit?

    1. deplorado

      I want to see this discussion too. There is probably a balance in there.
      For small local projects and businesses, local banks are probably best.
      For national level investment, a public credit utility democratically overseen and steered is probably best.

      But which ones should be for profit? Profit is a bothersome concept.

  8. none

    I’ve been wanting to read or at least look at David Graeber’s book “Debt”. Does this one say similar things?

    1. eg

      Graeber’s book begins its story before the creation of money and even before the invention of book-keeping and credit (which themselves predate money — they even predate the invention of writing). The book begins with an anthropology of obligation, and then follows the evolution of obligations across ever larger human groups including the establishment and development of law, credit (beginning with the Bronze Age temple economies) and currency.

      This book of Hudson’s begins later — with classical antiquity in Greece and Rome. It is a sequel to his And Forgive Them Their Debts which is itself an explanation of the Bronze Age innovation of clean slate debt cancellations (deror/andurarum — “the return” to the beginning state) and their inclusion in the Jewish tradition as the Jubilee.

      So, yes, the books are related in terms of topic, though their historical points of departure differ, and Hudson’s is more narrowly about the history of money debts than Graeber’s, which situates that specific case in the broader context of obligations more generally.

  9. Susan the other

    I’m thinking there is a specific time dimension involved in creating credit as a “productive” mechanism. In fact, I’m thinking time is geometric just like a locality is. And productivity (which I’ve always considered to be a four letter word) is limited in space and time. Even by parameters we have not yet recognized. Maybe because entropy, or exponentiation, is magnified beyond control when productivity is not strictly maintained in a local fashion. Hence the rules of productivity are both time and space defined. As in localized. Otherwise it’s gobbledegook because expansion decreases true efficiency.

  10. Foy

    The link in the header of the article goes to the wrong book. It goes to Michael’s previous book ‘The Destiny of Civilization: Finance Capitalism, Industrial Capitalism or Socialism’ instead of The Collapse of Antiquity’.

    Here is the correct link

    Can’t wait for my library to get this book, just put in the request.

    The line ‘Michael Hudson is a god who walks the planet’ always brings a smile to my face.

  11. Mary Wehrheim

    The phrase libertarian anarchist is an oxymoron. Milton Friedman is best remembered as a laissez faire or so-called free market capitalist. The term libertarian was adopted by French anarchists during the late nineteenth century in response to the criminalization of the word anarchism. In Europe today the term libertarian still means anarchism, but not in any association with capitalism. However, the Libertarian Party in the United States created considerable confusion when it took on that moniker as a right wing offense to champion laissez-faire “free-market” neoclassical economics, and to fault the state for corrupting “natural” capitalism.

    Anarchism maintains that freedom and equality cannot be achieved within a state system of government because government is, by definition, the control of people by an authoritarian structure. US Libertarians endorse a night watchman form of government which retains the state’s coercive apparatuses of law, police, and military to stem social problems generated through flawed human nature. Human corruption and degeneracy stemming from structural externalities as a function of power is never recognized because Libertarianism, like liberalism, fully supports capitalism. Capitalism cannot exist without a violent capitalist-state nexus. Neither libertarians nor liberals object to centralized power, imperialism, economic inequality, hierarchy, nor authority. The negative “liberty” to exploit labor and amass property unencumbered by the state is the quintessence of capitalism and is the utter negation of anarchism.

    Social anarchism is synonymous with horizontal direct democracy. Anarchists are portrayed as promoting chaos and destruction of social order. Anarchists actually want more organization, though organization without authority. The prejudice against anarchism derives from a prejudice about organization; people cannot see that organization does not have to depend on authority.

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