Origins of Debt: Michael Hudson Reveals How Financial Oligarchies in Greece & Rome Shaped Our World

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Yves here. Get a cup of coffee. This is an in-depth discussion of Michael Hudson’s extensive work on the origins and effects of periodic debt jubilees versus the enshrinement of creditor rights. The latter produces oligarchs, the impoverishment of lower orders, and eventual social decay.

BEN NORTON: Hi, everyone. I’m Ben Norton of Geopolitical Economy Report, and today I have the great pleasure of speaking with a friend of the show, the economist Michael Hudson, and I’m very excited to be discussing his newest book, The Collapse of Antiquity: Greece and Rome as Civilization’s Oligarchic Turning Point.

            This book is an absolute tour de force. It’s an incredible work, not only of economic history, but simply, I would say, anthropology and economic archaeology. I think it really shows that many people know Michael Hudson for his work on economics and finance, but I would say that a book like this shows that he’s also an economic anthropologist or an economic archaeologist.

            He goes through and details essentially the history of the emergence of the modern financial system with its roots back in classical Greece and Rome, and the defining role of debt in the development of all of these political models.

            This is a book focused on classical antiquity, so it goes from about the 8th century of BC or BCE until the 5th century AD or CE. In his book, Michael uses BC, so I’ll use that for the dates.

            Michael starts this 500-page book discussing the emergence of interest-bearing debt and the emergence of classical Greece in the 8th century BC, and then he goes through classical Greece, and then classical Rome, the emergence of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, and the influence on political culture today.

            So, Michael, there’s so much that I want to ask you about. This is a fascinating book, and I want to start with a very general overview.

            This is the second in a trilogy that you’re writing, which is A History of Debt. The first installment is … and Forgive Them Their Debts. Why in 2023 or in the past few years, why have you spent so much time writing about the emergence of debt and this history from 2,000 years ago?

            Why do you think it’s so relevant for us today in the 21st century?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Many people think that debt and the payment of interest and the fact that all debtors have to pay their debts, it’s assumed that the rules of finance are universal, they’ve always been this way, and that there is no alternative. You could say that the political message of modern economic history is there is no alternative and there never has been an alternative. Therefore, there is not any alternative in the future. All debts have to be paid and creditor interests have to take priority over debtor interests and those of the indebted society as a whole.

            Well, beginning in the 1980s, I thought of writing a long history of how countries were ruined by their foreign creditors. I began really in the 18th and 19th century. Then I went back to classical antiquity. And I found out by about 1982 that there was this whole undiscovered or unwritten-about area of the ancient Near East and debt cancellations. And since what I’d been writing in the 1970s was all about the fact that the Third World countries, the Global Majority, cannot pay their foreign debts.

            The fact that early societies coped with the debt problem, not by letting the creditors foreclose and property passing into their hands, but by writing down the debts so that they would maintain a balance between what was owed and what could be paid.

            It took about 25 years, working with Harvard University that put together, or let me put together, a group of Assyriologists and Egyptologists and anthropologists to look at the very origins of debt and economic relations and privatization and land ownership and land rent in the ancient Near East.

            I wanted to start really at the beginning and look at how the original idea of debt service, of interest payments, of land tenure were all put in place already in the third millennium BC, and how these dynamics changed over time. That took me until about 2015, from I think 1994 through 2015, to write the ancient Near Eastern five volumes of colloquia that I published there.

            Then I began to follow up what happened in antiquity. I subtitled that book, The Turning Point. Most people think of Greece and Rome and Western civilization as just the beginning of everything, as if somehow Greece and Rome developed their economic practices and their social practices out of primitive tribes that somehow developed.

            A lot of this was simple racism, that it had to be the Anglo-Saxons that developed the economics. It couldn’t have been the Mesopotamians or the Egyptians, much less Easterners, who did any of this.

            Starting the history with Greece and Rome misses the point that they were sort of on the periphery of 3,000 years of development from Sumer to Babylonia to Assyria to Judea and Israel.

            All of these Near Eastern countries had a common practice. The common practice was what the Jewish religion called the Jubilee Year, the cancellations of debts in the 50th year that was put at the very center of Mosaic law in Leviticus chapter 25. The Jewish laws were taken word for word from the Babylonian practice. You’d cancel the debts, personal debts, not the commercial debts, but the personal debts that were due.

            You’d liberate the bond servants that were pledged and you’d restore lands to people who lost them. And that way you prevented an oligarchy from developing and taking over all of the land.

            What happened in the 8th century BC was, there was a really bad climate from about 1200 BC to about 800 BC. Populations couldn’t make it on the land that they lived on. There was a great population movement. There was a great shrinkage of population. And there was really a dark age. Writing disappeared. Before 1200 BC, you had syllabic scripts. When writing was reinvented, it was the alphabetic script from the Phoenician countries and then the Jewish lands.

            Gradually you had in this dark age warlords or mafia families taking over local districts and local cities. Classical historians themselves have used the term mafiosi states for these small cities.

            Greece and Rome were very different political environments from the Near East. All the Near Eastern countries had kings, had central rulers. Their role was to preserve economic balance, to preserve an army, a fighting force of citizenry that would fight to either defend or sometimes attack enemies.

            The idea was, kings didn’t want an independent oligarchy to develop because if an oligarchy developed, they would end up indebting the population and the indebted population would lose its lands to the oligarchy and would have to go and work for the creditors.

            If they had to work for the creditors, then they couldn’t serve in the army and they wouldn’t be available for the public infrastructure projects. Well, all of this is what I talked about in the first volume, … and forgive them their debts.

            But Greece and Rome in the West didn’t have any practice like that. So gradually you had the revival of trade along the Mediterranean and the Aegean in the 8th century BC. Then you had Assyrian traders, Phoenician traders coming, and they brought weights and measures and commercial practices to Greece and to Italy. And these practices included charging of debt.

            There was no indication of charging of debt in Greece or anywhere else in the Mediterranean before the 8th century. In the Mycenaean culture before 1200 BC, there was no interest bearing debt. This was brought to Greece and Rome, and this was something completely novel. And the mafiosi leaders of local cities immediately did what wealthy people would have liked to have done in Judea and Babylonia.

            They would have liked to make loans to debtors who would pledge their land and mostly their labor, and then the debtors would have to work off their debts by working for the creditors, and ultimately they’d lose their land and they’d be absorbed in a dependency relation to the creditors.

            That was prevented from happening in the Near East because rulers prevented it. And if they didn’t prevent it, they would be overthrown.

            Well, by the 8th century BC, you had a similar evolutionary process occurring in Greece and Rome. Starting in Corinth, you had reformers, usually from the leading families, saying, “Look, we can’t just have a dictatorship and impoverish everybody just to make these mafiosi families rich. We’ve got to overthrow them. We’re going to cancel the debts and we’re going to redistribute the land.”

            They were called tyrants. The word “tyrant” meant someone who paved the way for democracy by liberating the population from debt dependency, by creating popular support instead of just a very concentrated polarized land ownership.

            Same thing in Italy. The Roman kings, according to the Roman historians, all prevented an oligarchy from developing by making sure that the people who came to Rome would have their own access to land. They wouldn’t lose it to creditors. And to make sure that the kings wouldn’t represent the oligarchy, Rome would appoint kings from other regions. They wouldn’t appoint one of their own leading families as kings. They were always an outsider.

            Persia had had the same practice of making sure that Persian cities would have outside rulers so that they wouldn’t get involved in the internecine conflicts and favoritism among families.

            Well, Rome became a magnet for people who ran away from very centralized, mafiosi-like states. Rome was originally settled by fugitives. Fugitives were runaways in flight. This practice of flight is found all the way through the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia. Debtors would avoid falling into debt bondage just by running away. By the 14th century BC in Mesopotamia, they were called the hapiru. And they seemed to be the predecessors of the Hebrew speakers.

            The hapiru were just sort of like pirate gangs or armed gangs who had run away. And they were very egalitarian among themselves. They said, “We’re not going to let inequality develop as it developed in the countries that we’ve run away from.”

            A similar thing apparently happened in Italy. People ran out to Rome and Rome built up a kind of proto-democracy under the kings.  But the oligarchy overthrew them in 509 BC. And the oligarchs spent the next five centuries trying to fight against anyone who would try to cancel the debts and redistribute the land. And that was the constant cry throughout all of antiquity.

            I mentioned Corinth before. In Sparta, you had leaders come who would redistribute the land that they grabbed from the neighboring helots that they enslaved. They banned money altogether just to prevent debt to the largest amount, largest degree possible.

            Finally, in Athens, which was a latecomer, Athens was one of the last city-states to develop democratically and Solon, early in the fifth century BC, canceled the debts that had tied the population to the land, but he didn’t redistribute the land. So that was sort of a proto-democracy. It was Solon’s followers, Pisistratus and the sons of Pisistratus, that actually ended up democratizing the Athenian economy.

            So for the next five centuries, from Greece all the way to Italy, you had one revolution after another urging exactly the policy that had preserved stability in the Near East.Cancel the debts, redistribute the land, prevent an oligarchy from concentrating all the wealth and all the land in their own hands.

            In Rome, certainly, you have century after century, any popular leader who said, we’ve got to preserve economic balance by canceling the debts and not letting people lose their land, they were assassinated. The typical oligarchic political response was violence and political assassination. And that went right down to the second century when the leading reformers were killed.

            Catiline and his army urged that cancellation, he was killed. And finally, Julius Caesar was killed because they had feared that he was going to cancel the debts, although he only canceled the debts of the wealthy people, not really the poor people.

            So I find the common theme that made Western civilization different from everything that went before was the fact that they didn’t cancel the debts, that Western civilization let an oligarchy take over. Instead of the basic rule, that debts have to be written down to the ability to pay, Rome introduced a pro-creditor law. All the debts have to be paid no matter what the social consequences are, no matter how much society is injured by families losing their land and the land being concentrated, the money being concentrated, the wealth being concentrated and political power being concentrated in the hands of a creditor oligarchy.

            A debt is a debt, and it has to be paid. Well, the Roman law is still the philosophy of modern law. The whole modern legal system is still based on that of Greece and Rome.

            And I wrote Roman history after the Near Eastern history so that you can see how this whole evolution changed from a pro-debtor economy, in which you had kings and rulers preserving economic balance, to Greece and Rome, where in Greece, the word of invective was “tyrant”. If someone wanted to support popular desires to write down the debts or redistribute the land, he was called a tyrant. And in Rome, if someone wanted to cancel the debts and distribute land, [it was said of him,] “he’s seeking kingship”.

            So the opposition to kingship, the opposition to tyrants, as if somehow that was destructive of civilization and the economy, became the characteristic of the kind of morality you have today.

            That Roman way of thought, that pro-creditor, pro-oligarchic way of thought is what has really enabled classical historians for the last few centuries to think that, well, our society must have really begun in Greece and Rome.

            What began in Greece and Rome wasn’t democracy because, as Aristotle pointed out in his study of constitutions, many cities had constitutions that they called democracy, but they were really oligarchies. And Aristotle and also Plato explained how democracies tended to develop into oligarchies as some families developed enough power, enough money to gain political power. Then the oligarchies made themselves into hereditary aristocracies until finally one of the aristocratic families fights against the other aristocratic families and takes the public into their camp by looking for public support, by canceling the debts and redistributing the land and overthrowing the reactionary oligarchic families that were fighting against this economic progress.

            When you look at the long perspective, you realize that this is a thread that goes all throughout history, from the very beginning of written records in the third millennium BC. The turning points and the distinctive economic dynamics that shape politics and economic society are how society has handled the debt.

            The Collapse of Antiquity is part of showing how the refusal to write down the debts and the mass assassination of politicians who advocated debt write-down led to the Dark Age that bequeathed its philosophy to today. The third volume of this sequence will show how we’re undergoing today exactly the same dynamics that tore the Roman Empire apart and ended up impoverishing it, leading to a Dark Age. That’s the same dynamic that we’re seeing in Western civilization today. The important thing is to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way, that the whole rest of the world had prevented this from happening except for Western civilization.

            Western civilization, instead of being the origins of civilization, turns out to be a detour from the Near East and the Asian civilizations that were able to prevent this kind of financialized Dark Age from developing.

BEN NORTON: Michael, this is such an important corrective. I do agree that it’s so relevant today, not only considering all of those parallels, but also because a narrative that we’ve seen emerge in the past several decades is this fetishization of classical Rome.

            In fact, you probably haven’t seen this, but on social media today, it’s popular to see young conservatives and far-right activists use a Roman statue as the symbol on their social media profile.

There is this idea that you constantly hear among Western conservatives, the concept of Judeo-Christian civilization, which is somehow conflated with Greek and Roman civilization, even though the Greeks obviously were not Christians or Jews, and the Romans weren’t Christian until Constantine.

            But anyway, the point is that there’s been this imaginary history, a kind of conservative historiography that’s been created that says that we have to go back to these great roots in classical Greece and Rome, but you’re pulling that entire rug from under their feet and saying that actually this fantastical vision is not true.

            I think one of the most fascinating things about this book that really made me ponder when I was reading it was your use of the term “social Darwinism” and the concept of “Oriental despotism”. Because we’ve constantly heard, I remember when I was in public school in the United States, we’ve constantly heard for many decades and centuries that Asia in particular has been dominated historically by
Oriental despots”, right? “Authoritarians and dictators” in scare quotes, right?

            And that’s still what we hear today. I’m still waiting for these Western commentators to refer to any Western government as authoritarian. It’s always China and maybe Russia, the former Soviet Union, but it’s always the “scary Asiatic hordes”. And now we see even Western media outlets like the Wall Street Journal portrayed Putin as a Mongol, right? So trying to link so-called authoritarianism to Asiatic heritage.

            Anyway, the point is that you point out in this book that this is rooted in this concept of social Darwinism, which is not actually linked to science or evolution or even Charles Darwin himself, despite the name. It was popularized by Herbert Spencer, who is one of the main influences of the Austrian school of [Friedrich] Hayek and all the libertarian right-wing economists, right?

            So can you talk about this concept of Oriental despotism, not only in the past, but today look at the way that Xi Jinping is portrayed in Western media and how when Greece and Rome are portrayed as the beacons of freedom and supposed individual liberty, it’s actually not really freedom. It’s freedom for oligarchy. That’s what they represent, not freedom for average people. It’s freedom for the oligarchs to rule society.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the concept of Oriental despotism was developed by an embittered ex-communist, Karl Wittfogel, who looked at Stalinism and said, well, Stalinism is an expression of the racist Near East. He said, it’s the result of irrigated societies. He had an idea that has been universally rejected by all archaeologists. And certainly the five archaeological volumes that I did for Harvard has shown that everything that Wittfogel made up in his mind is just fiction.

            Wittfogel said, well, irrigation is such a big project that you need a palace to make a decision. And if you have a central power making a decision, he’s going to take over just like Stalin. We can’t have anyone with power. We have to get rid of any kind of singular leader. Wittfogel had an obsession with Stalin. And the fact is that the countries that he described that were despotic were not the irrigated societies.

            Archaeologists have found that when Babylonia and Mesopotamia, other societies that were irrigated, they were done locally. They weren’t done with central planning because you can’t centrally plan agriculture very well. It has to be basically local. And the whole idea of Oriental despotism was just picked up and made into a racist idea that all Asians are just as despotic as Stalin was.

            The alternative is American democracy, which means oligarchy and despotism of the ruling class that we have today, the neocons that are fighting in the proxy war in Ukraine.

            So you have had a kind of Orwellian turnabout of phrasing and where the Romans denounced kings for trying to protect the people and the Greeks had tyrants for liberating populations from debts. Today, we say with President Biden, any country where there’s a strong leader that wants to build up living standards and prevent an oligarchy, like China is doing, is a despotism.

            So today, any attempt at democracy is called despotism. And any despotic country, such as the United States and the client dictatorships in Latin America and Ukraine is called a democracy that has nothing to do with rule by the people. It maintains rule by a very centralized, small oligarchic ruling class that maintains power by assassinating everybody who doesn’t agree with it and doesn’t agree to be colonized.

            So when you see how the language has been changed throughout history and you realize that we’re living in a kind of inside-out world, sort of like a Mobius strip ending up on the other side of things as you go through everything.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, very well said. And Michael, a really interesting point that you make in this book that I had really not considered in the past is the role of kings and how obviously, we’re not monarchists. We’re not trying to defend monarchies. There’s a lot of reasons to oppose monarchies. It’s ridiculous to think that someone should rule a society simply because they had the luck of being born in the right family.

            But you point out that the central authority of a king was often a check on the power of the oligarchy and how oligarchs didn’t want to spend money on social programs and infrastructure and they wanted the state to be weak because a strong state could serve as a check on their political and economic control. So when I read your book, it also made me think of a book by Michael Parenti, which is The Assassination of Julius Caesar , where he talks about the demonization of Caesar by the Senate, which was controlled by the oligarchs in Rome.

            So without obviously defending monarchies, I mean, we’re not monarchists. I’m wondering if you could talk about the battles that happen between the economic oligarchy and certain kings, not all, but certain kings.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, in the early Bronze Age, in the third millennium and second millennium BC, societies couldn’t afford a selfish ruling class that kept all of the power in its own hands. Because if you kept all the power in your own hands and you indebted everybody to yourself, everybody would get up and leave. They’d just flee or they’d overthrow you and replace you with another king.

            Tribal societies often will choose a local tribal leader, maybe from another tribe. And if the tribal leader becomes very selfish, they’ll get rid of him, sometimes violently, and replace him with somebody who really serves society as a whole. You can do this in small scale societies, and you could do this in the third and the second millennium BC. But by the first millennium BC, with the rise in wealth, society could afford to have a ruling class and could afford not to depend on its own citizenry to man the army. They could afford to hire mercenaries.

            If you read the Jewish Bible, that’s really the first history where you realize kings were bad. The Jewish Bible describes the kings as really becoming frontmen for the domestic oligarchy. Instead of the kings checking the oligarchy in Judea, they became sponsors of the oligarchy, which is why Israel withdrew and said, what interest do we have in the House of Jesse, meaning David and the Judaic?

            So you could look at Jewish history as part of the class war of debtors against the creditors. The fact is that after the Roman kings were overthrown, obviously in the fifth century, fourth, third, second, and first centuries, nobody was going to make a king of Rome. Nobody was going to make a tyrant of the Greek lands, but they kept using the word for tyrant and a king for anyone who represented the democratic popular interest.

            The objective of the Roman oligarchy was to prevent anything democratic from developing, and the Roman election system weighted the voting according to how much land you owned. It’s very much like voting in America today. When the voting is according to how much money the campaign contributors can give to the Democratic or Republican parties, and that determines really their policies.

            The voting in Rome was weighted so that when the wealthiest groups of the population had voted first, it didn’t really matter what the population with lower land holdings and lower financial wealth had because the wealthy classes had already outvoted everybody else.

            They held onto power with an iron fist, and the iron fist was a very violent fist. From the very beginning, as soon as the kings were overthrown in Rome, you had the secession of the plebs. The plebs said, “Now the oligarchy’s taken over. You’re grabbing our land. You’re reducing us to debt. You’re reducing us to bondage. We’re going to leave.

            Rome was populated by people coming there when it was a nice place to live. Not a nice place anymore. They walked out. They negotiated and thought that they had an agreement, but it didn’t turn out to hold very well. Fifty years later, around 450 BC, there was another walkout.

            There were repeated secessions of Rome, but really the Roman population didn’t have anywhere to go in Italy because the lands at that time had become much more filled up than they were thousands of years earlier, when anybody who was enslaved could simply run away and you could find someplace nice to live with other people without much money that treated each other fairly and said, — Okay, let’s not have any bosses here. Let’s run society for ourselves.

            That kind of egalitarian society ended in the first millennium BC, and a king wouldn’t have helped. What you needed was a political system that would enable people to be elected, to run society in a way that it would not be impoverished by concentrating all the wealth in the hands of a creditor class by getting everybody in debt and then foreclosing on them.

            The Romans were very much like the Republicans or President Biden today. They don’t want to spend money on public services or social spending. They want it to be done through charity. So it’s up to the wealthy people to decide who to support and how much to support. That whole spirit of charity was their alternative to public responsibility, making means of self-support a public right, making the land a public utility, making credit a public utility.

            Anything wanting to make a basic need a public utility was called, well, that’s what the kings tried to do back in the seventh and sixth century BC. “That’s what the tyrants tried to do, and we certainly don’t want that because look where that led to. That led to democracy. You can’t have that. You’ve got to have autocracy. We’re for freedom. We’re for the freedom of the wealthy people to do whatever we want. We’re for the freedom of the creditor to indebt the debtor.”

            That was the Roman concept of freedom, and they said just those words again and again and again. The freedom of the wealthy to enslave and in-serf the poor, the freedom of creditors to write the laws that all the debts have to be paid, and if you can’t pay it, you end up in bondage. That was the Roman concept of freedom, and it is becoming once again the concept of freedom throughout the West, certainly among the US NATO West. That’s why the Americans fear what’s happening in China and now the rest of Asia. The rest of the countries are trying to get rid of all of this.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I think the main point that I take away from that discussion of how the oligarchs often saw certain kings as a threat to their power is simply also, it’s not a glorification of monarchism but also the importance of central authority and being able to discipline the wealthy classes because the more you have decentralized authority, the more the oligarchs are able to dominate society and enslave the debtors and extract rent from them.

            Michael, another point that I thought about a lot when I was reading your book is the importance of who is telling the story in history, especially when we’re going back thousands of years. Historiography, right? And there’s this famous quote that history is written by the victors, right?

            And when you think, for instance, about the way that classical Rome is portrayed, figures like Cicero are often relied on, or actually also pronounced “KEE-kuh-roh”, Cicero. But in fact, he was one of the most reactionary figures in Rome at the time. He represented the oligarchs against the interests of the people, of the workers, and he was against popular reforms to help working people and represented the wealthy oligarchs that controlled the Roman Senate, as you show in your book.

            But Cicero is constantly quoted by Western historians as a legitimate source on Roman history, as if we can simply rely on what this deeply political figure was saying about the time he was living in. So what does this also say about historiography, not just today, but for hundreds of years, about the way that historians have written about Rome and also Greece?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, my book describes how Cicero was exiled for murdering politicians who he didn’t like in violation of Roman law. Even Roman law, with its assassinations, did not permit the murder of people who didn’t agree with him. And from his exile, right after Caesar was assassinated, Cicero wrote to the senators who killed him, he was so sorry that he was not there that he could not plunge another knife into Julius Caesar. So that’s where he stood.

            And finally the heirs of Caesar, when there was a civil war after Caesar was killed, hunted down Cicero, who had his own army trying to take over Italy. They seized him in the army and they beheaded him. They finally put him to death.

            Of course, he’s made into a saint by the reactionaries because what Cicero wanted to do to Caesar, the murders that Cicero did, is just what Western civilization would like to do to President Xi of China, to President Putin of Russia. That’s their philosophy. So of course they love him. And they say that’s what Western civilization can do. You cannot prevent a check on the oligarchy if you’re not willing to assassinate everybody who doesn’t agree with you. You’re either for us or against us, as George W. Bush said.

            So of course, that’s the philosophy that looks at Cicero, who did everything he could in the Senate, along with his colleagues, to sort of prevent the supporters of democracy, the advocates of debt cancellation, from bringing anything to a vote. They would find that there was an omen in the sky, or we saw birds flying the wrong way. That means there can’t be a vote. It’s bad luck.

            The role of religion in just preventing the Senate from making any rule, when even the senators said, “We can’t go on this way. If we go on this way, there’s going to be a dark age, and we’re going to be a slave society.” Cicero and his colleagues did everything they could to prevent any reform that would have prevented a dark age.

BEN NORTON: In terms of Rome, Michael, another very interesting point that you discuss in this book is how, in many ways, the European feudal system had its origins in the Roman system, specifically of what was referred to as the “colonus”, which was the tenant farmer. So a farmer that was working land that belonged to a landlord, which is very similar to the serf that serves the feudal lord, right?

            You described how Roman emperors raised funds by selling off public land, and eventually they ran out of land to sell. You use this term that you’ve also used to refer to the mass privatizations in the former Soviet Union, “grabitization”.

You know that when the Roman Empire, and the Golden Age ended, it ended through raw grabitization that hollowed out its polarized economy. Can you talk about what led to the collapse of the Roman Empire, and specifically how this system, this colonist system in which you had these tenant farmers, helped give birth essentially to European feudalism?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, I have to begin at the beginning of your question. The public land of Rome was land that it conquered from foreigners. It wasn’t its own land, which was already owned. It was land that you conquered. The big turning point in Roman history were the wars with Hannibal from Carthage that ended around 200 BC.

            Rome was really fighting for its life against Carthage and Hannibal. It asked for contributions of gold and silver jewelry to melt down and coin to pay the mercenaries and pay the army to support it to fight against Hannibal. So the wealthy families around 210, 208 BC contributed money to Rome. Our word “money” comes from the Temple of Juno Moneta, where the mint was situated and where money was coined in Rome.

            When the wars were all over, then one of the oligarchic families said, — Well, we gave you all this money. We won the war. We should really be the winners because it was because of our money that we won the war. It wasn’t really a gift. Let’s treat it as a debt.

            So Rome said, — Okay, we’ll owe you the money. Write down all the jewelry you gave. We’ll give you back all the money that you contributed to the war that we thought was progressive taxation.

            They said, — It turns out we’ve spent all the money on mercenaries and fighting. All we have is the land that we’ve conquered.

            So Rome gave the land to the wealthiest families. Arnold Toynbee in his book Hannibal’s Revenge is one of the best Roman classical historians. He said this was really the turning point of Rome. The revenge was that by winning the war against Carthage, Rome seized the land that it gave to the wealthiest families that used their wealth to fight and take over the whole economy and turn it from just a small oligarchy to a really vicious armed police state oligarchy that Rome went on to thoroughly destroy not only Carthage, but also the Greek, Athens and Sparta and the other Greek states.

            Especially Rome fought against the Spartan kings, Aegis and Cleomenes, who tried to cancel the debts in order to create their own citizen army again. The Romans saw Sparta canceling the debts as the great threat and destroyed it along with the rest of Greece.

            Even after that, the rest of the Greek territories tried to cancel the debts and Rome just came in and really just destroyed Greece over the next 50 years, from about 200 to 150 BC. That was the sort of prototype for making the large latifundia. The latifundia destroyed Rome. It’s because the latifundia, the land ownership staffed with first debtors and then tenant farmers who needed to take work on a farm in order to get enough food to eat and subsistence, that really became the prototype for what became feudalism under the empire.

BEN NORTON: Michael, another very interesting part of your book, which is also discussed in the first book in this trilogy, … and forgive them their debts, is the role of Christianity. You explain how Christianity emerged as a revolutionary social force and how the early Christians preached the importance of debt forgiveness and also were essentially dissidents against the Roman empire. You quote Matthew 5:10 in the Bible, which says, blessed are those who suffer persecution on account of justice.

            However, you note that that quickly shifted in the 300s [AD]. In 311, Rome ended the ban on Christianity. In 321, Constantine converted to Christianity and he made Christianity the state religion. And then you describe how Christianity essentially, the leaders of the church, essentially encouraged this ideology that was the ideology of the Roman empire in support of the oligarchs, completely doing a 180 politically.

            So can you talk about the origins of Christianity as a revolutionary force that preached against debt and how Christianity was essentially co-opted by the Roman empire and the church essentially changed its doctrine and became a force for oligarchy?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, by the first century BC, there was a pretty much of a conflict within Judea between creditors and debtors. You had the wealthiest Jewish families supporting a group of scholars, the rabbinical school, who wanted to get rid of everything in the Jewish Bible that called for debt cancellation. You had Rabbi Hillel credited with developing a clause that if borrowers would borrow money, they would sign an agreement that if the jubilee year fell, they would not take advantage of it and would not ask for the debts to be canceled and the lands to be given back.

            There was a whole group of people that we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls that were followers of Melchizedek and others who wanted to preserve the jubilee year. Jesus was one of these people who wanted to restore the jubilee year. In his very first sermon that he gave when he went to the synagogue and unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read about the year of the Lord restoring the land to the people, Jesus said the year of the Lord was the jubilee year. Jesus said that was his destiny. That was what he had come to proclaim.

            The wealthy oligarchs of Israel went to the Romans who governed the country and said, — We know you don’t like kings because kings want to cancel the debt. Well, Jesus says he’s the King of the Jews. He’s doing just what you don’t like kings to do. He wants to cancel the debts. Won’t you kill him? Because we really can’t kill him. That’s not our philosophy.

            So, indeed, Jesus was killed, but the movement that he started obviously went on and rather transformed form under many of his followers. But basically, it went on and it spread throughout the Near East and to Rome. And many of the wives of the emperors and the wives of the oligarchs thought that this was very fair and converted their husbands to Christianity. It ended up, indeed, that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion.

            Well, there’s a problem in making Christianity a state religion of a state that is built on absentee land ownership and procreditor laws. What are you going to do?

            One of the central points that was retained in Christianity was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with the Lord’s Prayer and forgive them their debts. And the word used was monetary debt. We have the early translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and it’s very clear. The word they used was for monetary debt.

            The problem for the Romans was, — Well, now that we’ve made the Christian religion, we’ve got to have something to do with Jesus. We can’t get rid of Jesus altogether. What can we change?

            The big change occurred with the transformation of Christianity in North Africa. And it was transformed by two people in particular. One was Cyril of Alexandria, who realized that you have to kill every intellectual who can read the Bible. He was an anti-Semite who said, — We’ve got to free Christianity from everything that has a Jewish background. And he developed assassination programs against the Jews. He killed the mathematician woman Hypatia by sending his thugs down to the beach and cutting away all of her skin with shells.

            Cyril developed the concept of the Trinity that sort of got rid of everything about Jesus being a human being fighting a class war as a political reformer. He said, — Well, you know, Jesus was really God. He wasn’t a human. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, they’re all the same thing. And he rewrote the whole Nicene Creed by convening a Christian council and basically killing the people who didn’t agree with him.

            The real villain in Christianity was St. Augustine. And St. Augustine, essentially in North Africa, there was a whole fight while Christianity was being made the religion. The Romans were fighting against the Christians in North Africa, and they insisted on confiscating all of the Bibles and the holy books of the Christians and the Jews. There was a whole anti-Roman opposition there.

            Well, once Christianity was made the official religion, there was a fight. What group in North Africa are the Romans going to support when they say, — Okay, you can build Christian churches now. We’re going to give money to the Christians to build their churches, but who are we going to give it to? Are we going to give it to the people who said, — We don’t want the Romans to come and kill us? Or are we going to give it to people who say, — Well, you know, I’m going to get rid of all this debt cancellation talk.

            So Augustine, essentially the people who were representing the old fashioned Christians were called the Donatists. They were opposed by the Augustinians. The Donatists asked the Romans, — Won’t you come in and get rid of these newcomers? Augustine and his gang are not us.

            Augustine said, — Look, yes, indeed, send in the army, but I want you to kill all the people who don’t agree with me.

            They said, — Well, what’s the disagreement about? And Augustine, I’m summarizing vastly the chapter that I explained this in. Augustine said, — Well, they think that the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer is about cancel the debts. It’s really not. It’s all about the sin of egotism, especially sexual egotism.

            — It’s about basically, we’re all sinful and there’s nothing you can do. These Christians want the wealthy people to give their money to the poor. We can’t have that.

            If they give the money to the poor, there’s only one kind of poor they can give them to, the poor churchmen who are part of my church, not their church. But they have to give the money to the church or the only spokesman for the poor. — So don’t give it to the poor, give it to the church or the spokesman for the poor.

            So of course they could live in the kind of luxury that Augustine lived in. And basically, the Lord’s Prayer was, forgive us our sins. And Augustine had a whole fight with Northern Christians. And they said, — Wait a minute, people can live a good life and not be sinful.

            Augustine said, — No, everybody is a sinner. They have to get rid of their sins by giving their money to the church, by what later the medieval church would call indulgences. You have to buy indulgences to get rid of the sin that’s inborn with Adam. This inborn sin with Adam has nothing to do with being a creditor. It has to do with being egotistical and keeping your money and not giving it to me, the church.

            The great scholar who studied this whole period, Peter Brown, said that in effect, you should look at St. Augustine as the founder of the Inquisition, as I go into in my later books. And so basically, you had from North Africa a de-Christianizing of the Christian church.

            And you did have a Welsh reformer Pelagius try to say that, — No, you don’t have to live a sinful life. You can live a moral life and be a Christian.

            Augustine had him excommunicated. And all the books of the Donatists have been destroyed. The books of the opponents of Augustine have all been burned. Augustine started the book burning, saying, — If you’re going to be a Christian, you have to burn every book that’s not Christian. He turned Christianity into a religion of hate, hatred of total autocracy and authoritarian control.

            And that’s part of what ended up making Rome a sort of outlier. By the end of the fifth century [AD], when my book sort of ends, you had five centers of Christianity called bishoprics, five bishops. The leading part of Christianity was in Constantinople, because after all, it was Constantine that had made Christianity a state religion. They pretty much retained the original Christian religion. You had Antioch, you had Jerusalem, and then you had as an outlier, Rome, that sort of ended up being taken over by local families and it became sort of a backwater until the 11th century [AD].

            So you had the whole essence of Christianity transformed in turning it away from a pro-debtor religion into a pro-creditor religion and an authoritarian religion, essentially denouncing everything that had been the original Christianity.

BEN NORTON: A key question in this discussion of the development of Christian thought and ideology is the question of usury, of exorbitant interest being charged on debtors by the creditors.

MICHAEL HUDSON: There were no words in any ancient language to distinguish usury from interest. There was the same word. The idea that usury is charging above the interest rate is a modern concept only dating from the 12th century [AD]. Interest was interest, usury was usury. They were all the same idea. No distinction.

BEN NORTON: Thank you for that clarification. Something that you do point out in the book is that in 325 at the Council of Nicaea the church banned the practice of usury by members of the priesthood. However that wasn’t really implemented later in the future and you discuss how the church ended up supporting the Roman oligarchy. That was in 300 when they banned it. I mean, of course we had 2,000 years of development since then.

            Can you talk about how the question of usury has developed over time within Christianity and how we get to today, you know, especially with the rise of Protestantism and Calvinism where many Christians especially in the US basically think that getting as rich as you can through any means you can including usury including exploitation of the poor is totally fine and there’s nothing ungodly about exploiting poor people?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, that’s the topic that I talked about in the third volume that I’m working on now, the tyranny of debt which picks up the story with the Crusades and really with the Reformation of Christianity in the 11th century. As I said, in the 10th century there was something that the Catholic Church itself calls the “pornocracy”, the rules of the concubines. [The word] comes from “pornography”.

            The totally corrupt family from Tusculum near the Alban hills near Rome controlled who was going to be pope. Just like they would appoint the local mayor and the local policeman or whatever, they’d appoint the local pope or one of themselves. You had their own family members monopolizing the papacy.

            Gradually other Christians said, we’ve got to reform this. Especially the Germans. The Germans said — Well, we’ve got to sort of reform the papacy and take over and introduce Christianity into the Roman Church.

            The Romans meanwhile had to cope with the Norman invasions coming in. The Normans came through France down into Italy and were threatening to grab the Papal States. The Papal States were middle Italy from about Naples almost all the way up to Venice.

             Pope Nicholas II made a deal with a Norman warlord Robert Guiscard and said, — We will sanctify your rule if you will take over Sicily and southern Italy and work with us, the popes. We will sanctify your rule, but you have to pledge to that you’re a fief of Rome and that we are your feudal masters.

            So Robert Guiscard did this in 1059. And then later in 1066, the year in which William the Conqueror conquered England, William made a deal with Rome. Pope Alexander II made the same deal with you that the papacy made with Robert Guiscard. —  We’re going to make you the legitimate King with a divine right to rule and in exchange you have to pledge fealty to us. And by the way, make sure you keep paying us the Peter’s Pence, you have to pay tribute to us, and you have to let us appoint the bishops so that we can make sure that because the bishops are in charge of your churches, they will send all the money from your churches to Rome.

            — You can have the land but we control the churches and they have more land than you’re able to conquer because you have to let their land be independent.

            So the Roman papacy began to have dreams of becoming an emperor. Well, Gregory VII passed something called the “papal dictates” that said — We’ve announced a new revolution in Christianity. Instead of having the five bishoprics all in common, having a collective Christianity, there’s only one center, that’s Rome.

            — We are the only ones who can approve the German Emperor or the Kings. All the other churches have to obey us. And by the way, you have to believe our theology and you can’t have your theology.

            When the other bishoprics like Constantinople objected, Rome expelled them, and Rome ended up excommunicating almost all of the Christians who didn’t pledge feudal loyalty to Rome.

            And obviously, there was a threat. The Germans were getting ready to invade Rome and to fight against the Normans who essentially acted as the army of the pope.

            Pope Urban II had a brilliant idea in 1095. He said, — In order to show that we’re really the leaders of Christianity, let’s start the Crusades to the east.

            — Let’s say there’s a great vast Christian fight, and that’s to drive the Muslims out of Jerusalem, and also protect the Byzantine Empire from them. Essentially the popes discovered what Goebbels discovered in Nazi Germany. If you tell a country that they’re under attack, you can always get them to support you’re going to war.

            The Crusades essentially did indeed send an army to Jerusalem, and that was how the Knights Templar and the Hospitaller were created. That’s how the fighting military orders were formed. There were altogether many crusades, some say nine, but there are actually many more than nine.

            Most of the Crusades were not against the “infidels”, the Muslims, in the East. The Crusades were against other Christian states. They were to prevent other Christian states having a Christianity that was not Roman Christianity and not pledging loyalty to the Roman pope.

            Even the Catholic Encyclopedia describes how evil the popes were. One of the cultural centers of Europe was southern France, the area around Toulouse, the Albigensians, and so the pope made a deal with the northern French to conquer the Cathars and they formed the Inquisition under the Dominicans and they killed the whole flowering of intellectual culture of the troubadours, of the poets and the musicians, because all the poetry and the music were songs against the papal Inquisition trying to defend themselves. They wiped out the whole of the Cathars.

            Then they fought against southern Italy, against the Muslims, and fought again in Sicily. They fought in Spain. Especially they fought against Germany. They kept excommunicating the German Emperor, saying, — You’re not Christian because you won’t let us appoint the popes.

            Well, all of these wars that went on for 200 years required money. As they got more expensive you had to begin to build navies and you had to hire mercenaries. The question was: How were they going to raise the money?

            Well originally William the Conqueror and other people had, when they conquered England, this was not a foreign trade oriented society. William invited Jewish merchants in to help commercialize and monetize the economy. They also made loans in addition to developing markets for the grain to turn the crops into payments for money that essentially the church or the king could use to fight wars. But they didn’t make many loans really to Kings.

            The big debtors, the people who needed money to fight the wars, were the kings, and also the churches that Rome said, — You have to raise money so that we can kill the non-Roman Christians.

            For this they needed to find Christian creditors, so the Romans organized North Italian and trans-Alpine, they were called  Cahorsins, from Cahors. The popes would send their agents throughout England and other areas with IOU statements promising to pay exorbitant interest to these Christian money lenders.

            Well the kings agreed to do this, and they raised the money to pay the interest by essentially confiscating whatever money the Jews had. And after confiscating the money that Jewish merchants had, in England and France, they then expelled the Jews.

            The problem that the Italians complained about again and again was that the Jews made loans at a lower interest rate than the Christians charged. And you can’t have their competition. The Jews were driven out of England and France, not for the reason that you usually read in the books, that they were usurers. It’s because they were not usurers. They had no more money to lend to anyone because it was all grabbed by the kings and the church.

            And again the Dominicans came and said, — We need a society that has one set of rules and only one set of rules. There can’t be any Jews in our society. There can’t be any Muslims. There’s only one way of straight thinking and that’s what the Inquisition says is a state thinking, That’s why we’ve killed the Cathars in France. That’s why we’re fighting against the others.

            This may seem normal today because it’s how America is treating the rest of the world, and yet this was completely different from the whole way in which the Muslims, Near Eastern lands, the Jewish lands; all of the Muslims and Sicily and the Byzantines and South Italy had all been a multi-ethnic multi-racial society.

            There was tolerance. The first intolerant that you have in society, of driving out people that didn’t believe what you did, was by the Roman Christians, who said — You can only have one way of thinking and that way of thinking is by Rome. And the pope that did this essentially wanted to be emperors.

            So you had the churchmen, theologians, largely from Paris, come and say — We’ve got to develop some logic where it’s economically legitimate to charge, and not “usury”, but let’s call it “interest”. Interest is what the Christians charge. Usury is what non-Christians charge, even if the rate of interest was much higher than the rate of usury.

            They said what later became the basis of the University of Chicago School of Economics. They said, — Well, if there’s a risk, then you can charge interest for risk. And if you’re making a loan to somebody and he doesn’t pay you one time, you could have used that money, if he’d repaid you on time, to make a profit. And if you lose the profit, of course, you can charge the profit. And even though that’s much higher than the nominal interest rate, it’s a late fee. Well, we’ll do what today’s credit card companies do. You may have a 19% rate of interest on your Visa card or MasterCard. But the penalty rate is 29% or even higher. Well, that’s what essentially what churchman said it’s okay to do.

            When I was studying the history of economic thought to get my PhD they we had to read what the Christian churchmen of the 12th century wrote and it all seemed very reasonable that well, if, you lose money you have to make a compensation, until I began to read what the actual analysts, the historians of the 12th and 13th century and 14th century, were writing.

            Wat they said was, — The pope is sending out these IOUs to the Italian bankers [that] said we’re gonna make this a very low interest 10% interest, but there’s going to be a late fee of 44%, or, if you’re really nice, only 22%, but usually 44%.

            The late fee began a month later. So obviously the rate of interest was really the late fee. And [it was] said, — Well, that’s not usury That’s a late fee and that’s all permissible under the theology that we’re teaching.

            This argument went on until about 1515 when the Medici Pope Leo convened a whole Lateran Council and said, — Well, you know, there’s a real problem. We church people, we Roman Christians, are trying to help people by creating a pawnshop bank for the poor, the Mount of Piety — (which by the way just went bankrupt a few a year ago, but lasted all these centuries) — and the Mount of Piety wants to pay interest to depositors and it’ll pay low interest to depositors and then it’ll lend out to the poor so that they won’t have to depend on these awful wealthy creditors and wealthy usurers, but the church won’t let us pay interest because they say the bible’s against interest. Let’s get rid of the whole thing.

            And Pope Leo and the Lateran Council finally got rid of the concept of any blockage against usury and said, — We’re going to call it interest now. There’s a new word. And with the new word that makes everything different. Language is magic.

            It was only later that you had the concept of usury being charging more than the legitimate interest, but the fact is that interest was much higher than the usury rate. That’s what is usually missed if you don’t actually read what the medieval historians were writing and how they were making fun of this playing with language that the Roman papacy did.

            The Roman papacy ended up sending the fourth crusade to loot Constantinople and to essentially give 25% of all of the loot to Venice who advanced the money to hire the army [which robbed] Christian cities on the way to Constantinople and then bringing all the loot back to the church. That made the break between Roman Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy that we have today lasting forever.

            People don’t realize that the Eastern Orthodoxy that survives in Constantinople is the closest we have to what was the original Christianity, and Roman Christianity is just a travesty of everything that Jesus is talking about.

BEN NORTON: Incredible history and I know you’ll be discussing all of that in greater detail in the third volume in your trilogy here looking at the history of debt.

            I want to conclude our discussion, just going back to a point that you did briefly address at the beginning, but I want to highlight it a bit more. If we study this economic history, what it shows is that there are alternatives to this system that we have. And of course, the capitalism that was created in the modern era is different from the pre-feudal and feudal systems that we’re discussing, but there is a common characteristic that ties them together. Which is this idea that essentially debt is sacred. That debt must be paid, despite the fact that it’s quite literally impossible for the debt to be paid, and it’s also economically suicidal. It does damage to the real economy to insist that this debt has to be paid.

            You point out that there have always been alternatives and thousands of years ago, if we go back it we can look at the ancient Near East, what people today call the Middle East, and Mesopotamia, and the Levant and Northern Africa,  and then there were other systems in which debt was regularly forgiven.

            And we talked about today of course, there are many different economic models. So I just want to conclude here again with your final thoughts on what we can learn from, not only the destructive oligarchical debt-based models that were inherited by classical Greece and Rome, but maybe you can talk a little bit more about the alternatives that have always been there and the alternatives that we have today.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well under Judaism, the cancellation of debts was sacred. That’s why the Jubilee year was put right in the center of Mosaic law in Leviticus. And 2,000 years earlier under Hammurabi we have Hammurabi, in the stele, getting his laws from the Sun God of Justice. Hammurabi’s important legal pronouncements were not the set of laws (that people call a law code that really weren’t a law code but were a set of laws). What he did that was considered sacred was his coronation ceremony, that was the same coronation ceremony that every member of Hammurabi’s Babylonian dynasty did.

            Upon taking the throne, the ruler would cancel the debts, would liberate the bond servants, would restore any slaves that the debtor had pledged to the creditor, would be returned to the original debtor, and return any land that the debtor had lost to the creditor. So you’d restore the status quo ante, and that’s why they’re called a restoration of order. The ruler would restore order.

            And before Babylonia in the second millennium BC, you had the Sumerians from the middle of the third millennium BC. The first economic records we have are the debt cancellations of Sumerian rulers taking the throne, canceling the personal debts, and proclaiming what I call a clean slate, restoring the lands, restoring economic balance.

            The Babylonians and the ancient societies had an economic model. We have the textbooks that they trained their students in. And the textbooks were much more mathematically sophisticated than anything that comes out of the National Bureau of Economic Research today. I think I’ve said this on your show before. On the one hand, the scribes would calculate how fast does a debt grow at compound interest.

            Every compound interest has a doubling time. Any rate of interest has a doubling time. And it’ll double, and it was in five years in Sumer, quadruple in 10 years, multiply 8 times in 15 years, and 64 times by 30 years. Well, you can see how fast the debts went up.

            We also have their calculation of how fast the material economy grew. For instance, the herds of sheep, and they were in an S (sine) curve.

            And obviously, the Babylonians saw that debts grow faster than the economy at large grows. And how is society going to cope with this problem of debts growing faster than the ability to pay? Well, if you leave the debts in place, then you’re going to have the debtors lose their freedom, their liberty. They’re going to have to go to work and work off the debts as labor for the creditors.

            And that was how the original wage labor was developed. Not as saying, we’re going to pay you a salary to work for us. We’re going to make you a loan, and you’re going to have to work off the loan by working off and pay interest by working on our land.

            Ultimately, they would end up losing the land themselves to the creditors. If that would have happened, any society that let that happen, everybody would run away or there would be a social revolution, or they’d simply kill the ruler and replace him with someone who would do what the rest of society had been doing for thousands of years before that, maintaining economic balance.

            So you had this whole philosophy of economic balance being sacred. All the Sumerian and Babylonian kings would all say, “This is the ethic. Debt cancellation is sponsored by the Sun God of Justice that we’re following.” And that’s why there was a calendrical basis for canceling many debts.

            Certainly that developed by the time of the Jewish religion, which took over the Babylonian debt cancellation word for word. But by that time in Judea, the kings were no longer sacred and they’d become part of the oligarchy. That’s why Jewish religion took debt cancellation out of the hands of the kings and put them at the very center of its religion in the Jewish bible, which became the Old Testament for the Christians and were embodied into it.

            So the question is, what is more sacred? If you make debts sacred, then you’re going to just rationalize the economic polarization of society between creditors and an increasingly impoverished, indebted economy below them. That kind of society is going to end up the way Rome ended up, in a Dark Age.

            If you want to avoid that, then you have to cope with the fact that you know that debts grow faster and you have to put the ideal of maintaining economic balance as being more important than giving money to the wealthy people.

            That’s what Socrates wrote about. That’s what Plato wrote about. That’s what the Roman historians wrote about. It’s what the Greek dramatists wrote about. And all of that is transfigured and almost expurgated from the classical histories that were taught today.

BEN NORTON:  Yeah, and I would add, I mean, I know you’d agree with this, that when we talk about forgiveness of debt, it’s not only within countries and societies between the rich and the poor, but it’s also between countries. And you know, there are so many Global South countries that simply can’t pay off this debt. It needs to be forgiven.

            And yet it’s used as political leverage to force political policies on these countries and austerity and other policies. So it’s an extremely important point of discussion that I think really needs to be raised is that debts should be canceled.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Can I point out what Socrates said about this? The whole plot of the “Republic”, it begins when Socrates is having a discussion with someone [who] says, —You know, I owe some people some money, should I repay it?

            Socrates said, “Suppose you borrow a weapon from somebody, a sword or something, and he wants it back. But you know that this person is a violent person. Is it fair to give the weapon back to this person if you know that he’s going to use it for an asocial purpose and to hurt society?”

            The other person, a student says, “Well, no, I guess that’s not fair.”

            Socrates said, “Well, the same is true with credit. Suppose you repay a monetary debt to somebody and this monetary debt is going to make an oligarchy rich and it’s going to make the creditor richer and richer. And he’s going to get very egotistical.”

            “Once you have a lot of money, you tend to get very self-centered and egotistical and you have hubris. And hubris means you injure other people in order to help your own gain. If you want to avoid hubris, then you don’t want to give the money to wealthy people. And in fact, you don’t even want wealthy people to be the people who are running society like they’re threatening to rule Greek society today in the fourth century BC.

You need to have a ruling class that is not so egotistical and self-centered that it’s pushing for its own economic benefit.”

            Well, since you mentioned the Third World debt, let’s say that you’re taking Socrates’ position in the Republic today and say, — Well, you have the Global South countries, the global majority countries, are saddled with an enormous dollar debt to international bondholders and banks.

            Suppose that you follow Socrates and ask, — Should these countries pay the debts to the banks and to the bondholders, if they’re going to use the dollar debts, they’re all going to be paid to the United States, and it’s going to do what it’s doing in Ukraine now.

            It’s going to make proxy wars. It’s going to fight in the Ukraine and threaten World War III, just like it’s fought and turned the Near East very bad, just like it’s fought in the whole world to make military bases and hurt the rest of the people.

            If you’re moral in the tradition of Socrates, you’d say the Third World countries and a Global South and global majority should not pay its dollar debts. You cannot enrich a violent country that is acting asocially to destroy other people out of its hubris.

            That’s literally the plot of the Republic that Plato wrote to explain Socrates’ logic.

            I think that would be a wonderful logic from classical Greece to apply to the modern world, but that’s not the message of Plato and the Republic that I learned when I went to the University of Chicago for my undergraduate degree.

BEN NORTON: Well, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. I was speaking with economist Michael Hudson about his incredible book, The Collapse of Antiquity: Greece and Rome as Civilizations’ Oligarchic Turning Point. This is an incredible book, 511 pages. And it really, for students of economic history, I think this should be required reading.

            It really is a fascinating read, and it really changed the way that I see hundreds of years of history that I didn’t know much about. And now I feel like I have a much better grasp.

            Michael, as we wrap up here, is there anything that you would like to mention or plug before we conclude?

MICHAEL HUDSON: I can’t think of anything. It’ll take me another year to finish the book I’m working on now on the Tyranny of Debt, about how the Middle Ages and the Crusades shaped modern finance.

BEN NORTON: Great. Well, I’m looking forward to reading that book and looking forward to discussing with you when it’s out.

            I will link in the description below to Michael’s website, And also, he has a Patreon account, so people should go and support him over at Patreon. I will link to that in the description below.

            And for people who want to read the first book in this trilogy, it’s called … and forgive them their debts. I read that a few years ago, and it was also very eye-opening.

            So I want to thank you, Michael, for joining us for so long and for the very enlightening conversation today.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, thanks for having me. It’s been a nice discussion.

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  1. JonnyJames

    Michael Hudson is a national treasure. He seems to be even more prolific in recent years, it is hard to keep up with him. It seems like as soon as I finish one book, another one is published.

    Many thanks to Ben Norton and Naked Capitalism for regularly posting his interviews etc.

    I started reading The Collapse of Antiquity recently. It is dense and packed with fascinating history and the latest research. It is taking me longer to read this book, compared to his previous works – time to digest, reflect and place into context as much of this information is totally new to me.

    Pepe Escobar, like most of us, has huge respect for Dr Hudson. He wrote a great review of the book.

    1. eg

      Likewise working my way through it now — while I understand the underlying premise quite well, the wealth of detail is both impressive and challenging.

  2. Jams O'Donnell

    There is also the fact that ‘democracy’ as practised today would not be recognised as such by the ancient Athenians (of whom we have most information). Democracy to them was the practice of sortition, where a number of citizens were chosen by random lot to serve for a limited period as the executive power.

    Whereas what we usually have, democracy through elected delegation, would be instantly recognised by them as either oligarchy, or a state leading inevitably to oligarchy. Which was why it was chosen – originally in Great Britain. A subsequent incarnation in the US was unashamedly linked to a property qualification. This pernicious system has spread throughout most of the ‘western’ world.

  3. JEHR

    To think that the world is ruled by the laws of debt! That democracy is a way to make sure that everyone in a society benefits from being in that society. The role that the banks (the Elite) play is especially egregious when you consider the way they create great profits for themselves in whatever role they choose to play. The role of the government should be to regulate the banks and the elites to make sure they don’t become the oligarchy that benefits from the work (and debt) of others. I would say that the lingering sign of debt out-of-control (i.e,.debt not being forgiven) can be seen in the number of homeless people in our cities and in our country.

    1. Lex

      The dictatorship of the proletariat. If I understand it correctly, Marx was actually describing a representative government where the masses had the most votes and used them to keep the elites and banks at bay.

      1. digi_owl

        Keep in mind though that his thinking was first and foremost on industrial capital.

        So the proletariat in that system would also have direct control over the means of production. Thus they could not be starved or otherwise bullied into submission.

        Ironically we see that kind of dynamic play out right now, on a national level, as China and Russia have direct material production that means they are not easily bullied by USA.

        This in contrast to right after WW2, when only USSR had any semblance of industry to stand up to USA.

  4. spud

    what we are witnessing today is the long over due of the collapse of debt driven economics, free trade.

    we will enter a dark age, and the people will flee to real freedom, that is freedom from financial parasites.

    trade will go from libertarian parasitical debt fueled hyper-trade, to democratically controlled beneficial trade, at least i hope.

    1. korual

      By the time one man is able to describe the whole history of Western Civilization, then we will know that Western Civilization has already finished.

    2. some guy

      Perhaps there should be a political party-movement just around that one issue.
      The Protectionist Party.

      Free Trade is the New Slavery.
      Protectionism is the New Abolition.

  5. Bruno

    Hudson perpetrates this howler “All the Near Eastern countries had kings, had central rulers. Their role was to preserve economic balance, to preserve an army, a fighting force of citizenry…”
    Yes, the ancient Near East had “Kings”–but all of them had theophoric names. They were representatives of the real “rulers”–the Gods, who were the “real” owners of the lands between the two rivers. States had two essential functions–maintenence of the crucial hydraulic infrastructure and military aggrandizement. Both were carried out by means of forced labor under the domination of the theocratic/military ruling class. Whatever urban centers existed were palace/temple complexes. Nowhere, despite Hudson’s fantasized “citizenry,” existed a single human being who could in any sense be a “citizen”–a rights-bearing member of an autonomous urban community.

      1. Thomas Schmidt

        Since you KNOW that Graeber demolishes the commenter’s argument. But no, as he writes, they weren’t ALL kings.

    1. eg

      The Kings Hudson refers to were religious figures whose role was to ensure maintenance of economic balance such that smallholders could retain their liberty in order to be available for corvee labour and serve in the army, not the despots characteristic of Feudalism or Absolutism.

      1. digi_owl

        More and more i wonder if various terms have been colored in the modern day thanks to the process English politics went through during the 1600s onwards (or there about?).

        This involving everything from oligarchy as democracy to kings as tyrants.

        Take the idiom “tragedy of the commons” for example. It gets thrown around a lot as a debate killer involving community vs individualism. It was formulated as an argument for ending the English custom of having a shared (commons) grazing land for sheep herds. And instead slice them up and sell them of to the highest bidder.

        These processes also displaced a whole lot of tenant farming families, that then ended up moving to the cities and finding work at the nascent factories. This then resulting in the industrial revolution.

        Heck, it was England that gave us the first central bank, Bank of England, as an intermediary between the rich merchants of London and the English king, who they were wary of lending their gold to so he could keep all those wars going. So the bank gets set up as an intermediary, selling bonds for gold, and then lending out the gold to the king. Oh, and issuing paper notes as a currency as well.

    2. Zzzz Andrew


      Some of Hudson’s characterizations come off a bit reductive (Jesus as economic reformer, no argument there, the πονηρὰ and φαῦλα ἔργα of John 3 are much better rendered “grubbing after lucre” than “evil deeds”; that said, let’s not forget the miracles of healing, teaching to pray, etc.). But these sharp strokes hone an argument that is pretty careful in its handling of the historical record, and is certainly important enough to warrant the high focus.

      Your take seems to me to recapitulate the Wittfogel caricature (which is, as Hudson points out, long since discredited). The institution of debt forgiveness as a tool in the royal toolbox is attested for a couple of millenia across the Near East; that covers a wide variety of cultures, societies, and real-world political arrangements. We find kings all across that spectrum with theophoric names (Ur-Nammu, Nebuchadnezzar) and without (Shulgi, Hammurabi), just as we have US presidents with theophoric names (JFK, Joe Biden) and without (LBJ, Bill Clinton). As for domination of a theocratic ruling class, cursory appeal to the authorities opens up a much richer picture:

      – from Piotr Steinkeller, (Research Professor of Assyriology @ Harvard), _History, Texts and Art in Early Babylonia_, p.77:

      The Managerial Class faced a major crisis during the time after the fall of the Ur III dynasty, which saw dramatic transformations of kingship and economy, caused mainly by the appearance on the scene of new political elites of foreign origin and different cultural traditions. One of those changes was the introduction of a truly hereditary form of kingship. Another important change, which affected the Managerial Class most directly, was the waning importance of temple households as communal socio-economic institutions, the traditional focus of its influence. This development was countered by the rise of the palace and the private sector as the dominant centers of power. For the Managerial Class this period of change meant uncertainty and the need to re-orient itself in the new socio-political reality. Having lost their former influence, members of the old Managerial Class now tried to become advisors to the king and his immediate circle, and so to secure for themselves a place in the new poltical order. Hence their attempts to demonstrate to the new (mostly Amorite) rulers the great antiquity of their class, the importance they played in the past, and, perhaps most important, their role in running the government and advising the king.

      – from A. Leo Oppenheim (Professor of Oriental Studies @ the University of Chicago, head of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary), _Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization_, p.187:

      The relationship of the temple to the city is expressed in the concern for the social, economic, and legal spheres of life, shown by the role of the temple with regard to oath and ordeals as a means of establishing the truth in legal controversies or of insuring the validity of agreements, as well as in the endeavors to maintain the standards of weights and to control the rate of interest. All this tends to disappear after the Old Babylonian period in the continuous and progressive isolation of the temple as an institution in Mesopotamia. We have already pointed out the shrinking of the economic strength—and hence political importance—of the temple that followed the rise of the palace organization headed by the king. The fame, glamor, and size of the late temples of Mesopotamia—especially those of Babylon and Uruk—must not make us overlook this state of affairs.

      Alternatively, take a tour of the Sumerian proverb collections (*), peppered with warm expressions of professional and private life in various locales and eras across Mesopotamia.

      Put another way, your construction of “citizen” as “rights-bearing member of an autonomous urban community” seeks to draw a distinction with more recent Western institutions that I don’t think holds up under scrutiny.

      I *do* want to think more about Hudson’s idea that the possibility of forming an egalitarian society in exile ended in the first millenium BC. What he says about the hapiru isn’t inaccurate, and it’s easy to imagine cisalpine Rome or the globalist modern world as being out of “elbow room” in a way that 14th century Mesopotamia wasn’t. I’m not sure the opportunity seized by the hapiru was a whole lot less rough than the one seized by the Essenes a millenium later, or any number of more recent points of comparison. But there’s a lot to think about there.

    3. JonnyJames

      Bruno: We should be careful not to project values, norms, contexts and definitions of the present into the past. You misunderstood or misrepresent the position of the author. Read the book, and then write a critical review.

      Maybe read the review by Pepe Escobar

  6. Hayek's Heelbiter

    For many years, I studied with Bhau Kalchuri, the last living disciple of the silent Indian master, Meher Baba.
    Especially after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, Bhau always had a real bee in his bonnet about “forgive us our trespasses,” insisting that the statement had to be wrong or mistranslated or something. As Bhau was a brilliant scholar, with multiple advanced degrees, I always thought his obsession was perhaps a pedantic disagreement.
    Not until I read this essay did realize what a critical difference this simple word change had on the course of Western history and why Bhau had somehow known intuitively this historical fact.
    Thank you Dr. Hudson for clarifying an issue that has bothered me for decades,

  7. Brunches with Cats

    Synchronicity! I’ve been working for the past two days on an email to Yves about the agricultural land market in Ukraine and have been pondering how to address “latifundum” without taking up too much space (and thus too much of her time). I figured Prof. Hudson had to have written about it as part of his antiquity series and was about to do a site search on NC for articles, transcripts, etc. And presto, there it was this morning, before I was done with that cup of coffee! Thank you!

    I discovered the word “latifundia” barely a month ago, in a damning report on the status of Ukraine’s ag land market (link below). Since then, I’ve seen it in two more articles, both ascribing its origins to the “Latin American model” — presumably, the hacienda, which, while similar, is weak tea, lacking the critical historical context. Prof. Hudson provides it in a way that only he can, with a gift for describing people and events in living technicolor and, more importantly, for detailing how history is repeating itself. Although he doesn’t mention Ukraine’s land market specifically in this article, I recall a post a while back in which he talked about the (near?) certainty that its rich cropland would be taken as payment when Ukraine inevitably defaulted on billions in loans from Western financial institutions.

    FWIW, one of the best sources for ongoing developments in Ukraine’s land market is an online publication called “Latifundist.” What kind of twisted mind thought that up? Has enslaving peasants for fun and profit become that shameless? Aren’t they at least supposed to delude themselves into thinking they’re “creating a better world?”

    War and Theft: The Takeover of Ukraine’s Agricultural Land [Oakland Institute, Feb. 21, 2023]

    P.S. Yves, if you see this … hoping to get that email to you by tomorrow.

  8. Thomas Schmidt

    Man, I wish there were audiobooks of these. I’m going to have to read this one.

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