Debt Cancellation and Economic Renewal

Basically what you had in the Bronze Age and every ancient society was a different concept of time than you have today. You had the concept of time as circular. That meant economic renewal. The idea was that every new ruler, every new reign, began time all over again. It wasn’t really time, it was really the economy had to start from a new position of equilibrium. This equilibrium – basically freedom from debt, the ability to support yourself – had to start afresh.

We know that in the very first sermon that Jesus gave when he returned to Nazareth, he went out on the Sabbath to the synagogue, and unrolled the scroll to Isaiah 61 and read that Isaiah, had been sent to preach the good news to the poor. “Good news” translates literally to “Gospel.” And he said it was to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release for the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, deror, which meant, basically, a Clean Slate.

What does this mean? There have been a lot of translations. As the time the King James Bible is translated, and at the time it was translated to other languages, people just thought the year of our Lord meant: “Obey God.” They’re not quite sure what it means. An even greater argument occurs over the Lord’s Prayer. What does it mean: Is he saying forgive us our sins, or forgive us the debts? Well, most of religion’s leaders, certainly the vested interests, say: “He’s talking about sins,” that religion and Christianity is all about sin, it’s not about debt. …

Leviticus 25 is about the year of the jubilee: “Each of you will return to his possession.” In Deuteronomy 15: “Let every creditor release that which he’s lent to his neighbor.” In Isaiah 61: “Release the captives, release the bond servants.” In Psalm 82, the Psalms of David: “God stands in the divine assembly, he’s going to give his judgment. God will judge his people and punish the wicked.” There’s a whole collection and there’s no question that this is what is meant by the idea of debt and sin and obligation.

Well, you can imagine how upset most religions were when they found these scrolls. They said they must be by this sectarian group, the Essenes. They must be a radical group, sort of like the Trotskyists. We can just sort of ignore them. But it turns out now that biblical scholars have found that the Qumran caves seem to be the library of the Temple of Jerusalem. During the wars with Rome they moved the library to the caves of Qumran in order to keep them from being destroyed when the Temple was sacked and burned down. So these scrolls were the very core of Judaic religion.

 The fight of Jesus against the Pharisees was about this. At first Jesus said: “Good to be back in Nazareth, let me read to you about Isaiah.” In Luke 4 says it that this was all very good, and they liked him. But then he began talking about debt cancellation, and they tried to push him off a cliff.

 So basically you have the whole origin of Christianity was a last gasp, a last fight, to try to reimpose this idea of the economic renewal – of a Clean Slate – that goes back at least to the 3rd millennium BC and probably all the way to the Neolithic.

So you have this last attempt to try to get a Clean Slate, and we know what happened to Jesus. His followers were not able to bring it about. So by the 1st and 2nd centuries of our era, what could the Christians do? You’re never going to get the Roman Empire to announce a Clean Slate. As a matter of fact, when the kings of Sparta, at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, tried to cancel the debts, the oligarchs of Greece called in Rome. Rome went to war against Agis, Cleomenes and then Nabis and destroyed Sparta. They were going to fight against anyone who wanted to cancel the debts. Mithridates in Asia Minor in the 1st millennium fought against Rome, canceled the debts, and also killed about 30,000 Romans in the ancient Near East. It was a long bloody fight, and they all lost.

So all the Christians could do was have charity. Well, the problem with charity is that you have to be rich in order to lend to somebody. It’s like what David Graeber did with Strike Debt. You can buy the debt and pay somebody else’s debt and give money away, but that doesn’t really fix the system. The result was, it really was the end times. The choice was: either you’re going to have economic renewal and restore people’s ability to support themselves; or you’re going to have feudalism.

That basically is how the Roman historians described Rome as falling. The debtors were enslaved, not only the debtors but just about everybody was enslaved, put in barracks on the land. Finally, you needed to have a population, so you let people marry and you gave them land rights – and you had slavery develop into serfdom. Well we’re going into a similar situation today, where I think we’re going into a kind of neo-feudalism. The strain of today’s society is as much a debt strain as it was back then.

Michael Hudson: Why Failing to Solve Personal Debt and Polarization Will Usher in a New Dark Age