One of the IWW’s most famous slogans is “We Never Forget.” But sometimes, we do forget. Or, more accurately, we are made to forget.
Erasing information and history has long been a tool of the ruling classes. It’s part of their war on the workers’ minds; they try to erase all evidence that human society has been structured any other way than it is now. Emperors in the highly stratified Aztec world would occasionally order book burnings to erase written historical records of conquered or subjugated peoples. When the Spanish colonized the Americas, they went through pains to destroy any and all written record of Indigenous societies. Indigenous peoples of North America were killed en masse and forced to forget their languages (and thus oral histories) when the American state began its westward expansion.
One of Marx’s greatest contributions to the working class was his recounting of enclosure in the early stages of British capitalism and colonialism. He described the mass eviction of peasants from communal land and agriculture, which formed the dependent labor force (or to the bourgeois, “free labor”) that would become urban factory workers. While this wasn’t the first major step toward modern capitalism, it remains a shining example of enclosure and privatization. What Marx doesn’t tell us is how feudalism’s class structure came to be, or anything of the economic world before then. Much of this information was unavailable in Marx’s time, though, and it’s just coming to light in the past few decades through archaeological research.
…and Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year by Michael Hudson is a remarkable work attempting to bridge the gap between the ancient world, feudalism, and modern capitalism. Hudson is a Marxist economist and historian whose work has focused on the deep history and development of bourgeois institutions. Namely debt, credit, interest-bearing loans, and finance.
Hudson has spent much of the last 40 years working together with other historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists to piece together the political-economic life of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. The result is a highly developed view into economic life in and around the Mediterrannean and Near East from 3rd millennium BCE Sumeria through to the 9th century CE Byzantine world. Debts is a summary of much of that work.
The main arc of the book is tracing the evolution of debt and the history of economy-wide debt cancellation (or Clean Slates) over 4,000 years. In the course of tracing this history, we see both a dramatic shifting and remarkable sameness to the institutions surrounding debt, credit, and production–and some of the earliest recorded forms of class struggle.
Early Mesopotamian and Eastern Mediterranean society was wracked by widespread debt bondage and foreclosure as high interest loans piled up. Agricultural production would regularly become extremely strained. The inability of rural communities to provide food, labor, and military service due to debt bondage cut into both the public sphere and the ruler’s power base. The lenders among the temple and palace bureaucrats constantly threatened to become an oligarchic aristocracy holding the entire population in bondage. The labor base often became restive and would sometimes flee to surrounding nomadic groups en masse if living conditions deteriorated. This weakening of the economy increased the likelihood of invasion by foreign empires.
Hudson shows how this state of affairs led rulers of Sumeria, Babylonia, and other societies to adopt the practice of forgiving consumer debt in order to maintain the structure of society, and, by extension, their own power. Debt cancellation was even coded into religious and civil laws to varying degrees.
The first recorded widespread debt amnesties, which Hudson terms “Clean Slates” (c. 2800 BCE)–called an amar-gi in Sumerian, literally meaning “return to the mother”–signified a return to a previous and more equal social order. Consumer debt was canceled, people held in debt bondage were returned to their families, and land was returned to its original occupants. Notably, though, slaves were not freed and commercial debt for foreign trade was not forgiven. Essentially, the ruler freed much of the labor base but left the social institutions intact.
The Clean Slate proclamation, or amar-gi, was regarded as the single most holy and sacred act a ruler could take. The iconography is remarkably constant–the ceremony always invoked the king as the most important god’s avatar recreating the world anew. In Sumeria and Babylonia, this was often depicted as the king/sun god burning the weed-choked and overgrown fields of the world with a holy torch. Other symbology included the king literally smashing tablets containing debt records or washing the clay tablets away in the Tigris or Euphrates rivers.
These amar-gi were common from the early 3rd millennium BCE down through the 1st millennium BCE. The exact debts forgiven changed and varied with time and political conditions, but the evidence Hudson provides indicates the Sumerian amar-gi (which turned into Babylonian andurārum and mīšarum) happened at least at the beginning of every ruler’s reign. Some rulers declared debt cancellation every seven to ten years, based on internal and external political situations.
Over time, however, a more permanent creditor class emerged in Mesopotamia and Clean Slates became less common or weakened in scope as land became increasingly privatized. Through the Mesopotamian web of commercial trade and military conquest, Mesopotamian economic institutions began popping up elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean: Anatolia, Syria, and most prominently, Israel. The historical record is spotty, but it is clear the class war between debtors and creditors, landowners and tenants, etc. continued. By the time reliable records pick up again in the 3rd century BCE, a new mercantile class had emerged in Judah that allied itself strongly with the conqueror Alexander the Great and his successors. The Judean creditor class plowed most of their income into usury and land acquisition in another wave of privatization and enclosure enforced by the Greeks.
This pattern of class stratification was amplified by the rise of the Roman Empire and its conquest of the Levant. Whereas most Near Eastern law was pro-debtor and considered debt forgiveness sacred, Roman law was extremely pro-creditor. Under Roman law and religion, it was the payment of debt obligations that was sacrosanct and not the other way around. This is one possible explanation for why there were so many documented debt and slave revolts in the Roman world and comparatively few in Mesopotamia.
Hudson emphasizes the parallels between widespread privatization in Greece and Rome, Israel and Judah, the British enclosures of the 16th and 17th centuries CE, the Third World debt crisis and structural adjustment, and the crash of 2008 and the 2015 Greek debt crisis. The result of all of these crises has been to displace rural labor in order to exploit the land and extract natural resources. Hudson argues convincingly our modern world has its roots in Near Eastern Bronze Age institutions. Our history has been a history of intense, forgotten class struggle in which debt bondage and foreclosure were, and still are, explicit strategies used by creditors to control and extract labor from a dependent working class.
Debts is an extremely interesting book that expands class analysis beyond capital/labor and focuses on credit and debt as pre-capitalist strategies to accumulate wealth and drive class stratification. The book has its limits, however. It doesn’t examine other forms of debt or histories of other regions like China, Africa, or South Asia. Hudson doesn’t examine patriarchy. For example, in early Sumerian records slave girls (along with tools, food, and cattle) were used as a form of denomination for fines. Much like Marx, Hudson gives us a plain examination of the origins of our modern hegemonic financial system, without diving into alternate systems.
Today’s creditor and capital-owning classes are in positions of unprecedented power. They have spent thousands of years waging a culture war moralizing about the sanctity of individual charity while hiding the dynamic history of debt resistance and working-class uprising. Thankfully, with books like Hudson’s, these histories are coming to light and we can pass them on. ..And Forgive Them Their Debts is a truly fascinating book that adds many wrinkles to a revolutionary look at history. It shows just how deeply rooted capitalist crises are, and it deeply examines a set of institutions that a revolutionary movement must confront: interest bearing loans, debt, credit, and distribution of surplus goods.
One day we will find ourselves in a position to wipe the slates clean and establish true freedom. It will be a day that no one will ever forget.