A Matter of “Self-Preservation”: Debt Cancellation in the Bronze Age

via Michael Hudson:

Adapted from …and Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee YearIslet. November 15, 2018. 

There has been an explosion of discussion about whether to cancel student debts. Critics of the idea point out that wealthy people would be the main gainers, posing moral hazard. The debate has  has quickly slipped into a discussion of modern economies and whether it was moral to cancel the debts of people who are in arrears, when some people have struggled to keep current on their payments.”

Bankers and bondholders love this argument, because it says, “Don’t cancel debts. Make everyone pay, or someone will get a free ride.”

Suppose Solon would have thought this in Athens in 594 BC. No banning of debt bondage. No Greek takeoff. More oligarchy Draco-style.

Suppose Hammurabi, the Sumerians and other Near Eastern rulers would have thought this. Most of the population would have fallen into bondage and remained there instead of being liberated and had their self-support land restored. The Dark Age would have come two thousand years earlier.

My book And forgive them their debts”: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year  is about the origins of economic organization ad enterprise in the Bronze Age, and how it shaped the Bible. It’s not about modern economies. But the problem is – as the reviewer mentioned – that the Bronze Age and early Western civilization was shaped so differently from what we think of as logical and normal, that one almost has to rewire one’s brain to see how differently the archaic view of economic survival and enterprise was.

Credit economies existed long before money and coinage. These economies were agricultural. Grain was the main means of payment – but it was only paid once a year, at harvest time. You can imagine how awkward it would be to carry around grain in your pocket and measure it out every time you had a beer.

We know how Sumerians and Babylonians paid for their beer (which they drank through straws, and which was cleaner than the local water). The ale-woman marked it up on the tab she kept. The tab had to be paid at harvest time, on the threshing floor, when the grain was nice and fresh. The ale-woman then paid the palace or temple for its advance of wholesale beer for her to retail during the year.

If the crops failed, or if there was a flood or drought, or a military battle, the cultivators couldn’t pay. So what was the ruler to do? If he said, “You owe the tax collector, and can’t pay. Now you have to become his slave and let him foreclose on your land.”

Suddenly, you would have had a slave society. The cultivators couldn’t serve in the army, and couldn’t perform their corvée duties to build local infrastructure.

To avoid this, the ruler simply cancelled the debts (most of which were owed ultimately to the palace and its collectors). The cultivators didn’t have to pay the ale-women. And the ale women didn’t have to pay the palace.

All this was spelled out in the Clean Slate proclamations by rulers of Hammurabi’s dynasty in Babylonia (2000-1600 BC), and neighboring Near Eastern realms. They recognized that there was a cycle of buildup of debt, reaching an unpayably high overhead, followed by a cancellation to restore the status quo ante in balance.

This concept is very hard for Westerners to understand. Yet it was at the center of the Old and New Testaments, in the form of the Jubilee Year – taken out of the hands of kings and placed at the center of Judaic religion.

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When debts were cancelled in Babylonia and other Bronze Age Near Eastern realms, it would have been against their way of thinking to complain that some debtors were benefiting from being freed from debts that other people had paid. In the first place, all cultivators became debtors during the growing season, with payments for everything from agricultural inputs to beer at the local ale-house to be paid on the threshing floor at harvest time. So annulling such debts benefited the population at large.

With regard to individuals who had borrowed out of need, it was recognized that if some could not keep up, it was because they were poor or unable to do so. Mutual aid became the principle of helping people who were sick, widows who lost their husbands or other factors that obliged them to run up debts. Not to have helped such people would have deprived the community of their productive labor.

Conspicuously absent from ancient moral values is the modern “moral hazard” theory to play solvent individuals against debtors. The point of reference was what would happen if people were not forgiven their debts. How would this have affected the community as a whole?

The answer is that debtors unable to pay would have fallen into bondage to their creditor, working on his land, and ultimately have lost their own land. They therefore would not be available to work on their own land to grow crops to pay taxes and other obligations to the palace, or to provide corvée labor on public works, or serve in the military. Clean Slate proclamations were part of the community’s self-preservation.

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