Occupy: a brief note on three antique responses to debt crisis

by | 9 Jan 2012

It is worth remarking that three broad types of response to debt crisis could be found in antiquity, in the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian area. We say broad types because it is quite possible that the particular type remarked upon was rather the predominant or defining characteristic of a movement, and could be accompanied by the other types of action.1for example the Athenian Seisachtheia was preceded by a degree of exodus We limit ourselves to this geographical region for brevity, though similar responses could be found for example across China (especially mass defection).

The three types are broadly:

1) The throwing off of burdens

2) Exodus

3) Occupation.

As an example of the first, in Athens in 594 BC we find that Solon’s reforms amounted to an effective stripping of the ‘well-born’ (eupatridae) of their hereditary privileges as land owners, sole dispensers of justice and leaders of cult. The key feature of this overthrow, though perhaps not as attractive to some as the institution of Athenian democracy, was a revisiting of the debt issue, termed Seisachtheia (literally, the throwing off of burdens).2Athenaion Politeia 6 The eupatridae’s economic power as landholders and controllers of the temple (and thus exchange) ensured not only the ability to offer early forms of credit to farmers, but to set the terms of its enforcement. That Solon therefore prohibited debt slavery of citizens, and broke up the concentration of land in a few hands, is equally worthy of note, given that it seems likely that debt slavery was more immediate and painful to the average Athenian in the century leading up to this critical change than the form of any new government. Not only this, but Solon cancelled all debts, reinstated property, and set a limit to the maximum amount of property one could own, irrespective of the legality of acquisition. So terrible had the debt situation become, that Solon’s own poetry regards Gaia Herself as enslaved to debt:

O mighty mother of the Olympian gods,
Dark Earth, thou best canst witness, from whose breast
I swept the pillars broadcast planted there,
And made thee free, who hadst been slave of yore.
And many a man whom fraud or law had sold
Far from his god-built land, an outcast slave,
I brought again to Athens; yea, and some,
Exiles from home through debt’s oppressive load,
Speaking no more the dear Athenian tongue,
But wandering far and wide, I brought again;
And those that here in vilest slavery
Crouched ‘neath a master’s frown, I set them free.
Thus might and right were yoked in harmony…3Athenaion Politeia 12.4 from Kenyon’s 1919 translation

The second case is in fact the earliest type, and Graeber 4in his striking Debt: the first 5,000 years argues that it derives from Sumerian and Babylonian economies. Here the almost total reliance on agriculture meant every farmer was bound to run a tab at the central temple/palace on non-agricultural purchases until the harvest came in. It was temples/palaces which held silver or similar as a unit of account, and which through export trade ensured the import of tools, clothing and so forth. When a harvest failed, farmers found themselves effectively bankrupt and at risk not only of losing their farms, but their chattels, families and their own freedom to the central creditor. Facing this, in a remarkable echo of U.S. ‘jingle mail’, whole families abandoned their farms to the equivalents of bailiffs and headed for the hills to join the nomadic communities that were just as much a part of iron age communities as the settled. Indeed the Scythians, Amazons and the like seem to have been more like the modern Cossacks in being grounded by voluntary association rather than through any ethnic or religious tie.

One can imagine that mass defection of this kind could leave a Mesopotamian city state looking a little like modern Detroit – abandoned to nature. This, Graeber argues, seems to have forced a radical political solution: debt forgiveness on a general level. According to the eponymous Book, it was the Persian king’s cup bearer, Neremiah, sent by his master to rebuild Jerusalem and as a result rediscover the Laws, who introduced this concept (ama-gi – return to one’s mother) as the Hebraic concept of Jubilee – debt forgiveness every seven years as a social safety valve to prevent the hollowing out of a state through defection.5Neremiah 10, 31 “When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.”

Ironically, the term ama-gi is the name taken by the journal of the Hayek Society, presumably because it has been regarding to the liberation of slaves. Whether the Hayek Society is aware that the slaves are actually debtors, and that the freedom derives from debt cancellation, is unclear. Indeed, a version of what some regard as the first written expression of political freedom is trademarked, yes owned, by the Liberty Fund, Inc., who likewise regard ama-gi as referring to freedom from oppressive governmental interference.6http://www.libertyfund.org/termsofservice.html One for the scrapbook that.

The third case, which seems to stand as a middle way between Athenian revolution and exodus, is reported to us by Livy. We let the historian’s words speak concerning the events leading up to the secessio plebis in 494 BC, exactly 100 years after Solon’s debt reforms in Athens:

But both the Volscian war was threatening, and the state, being disturbed within itself, glowed with intestine animosity between the senate and people, chiefly on account of those confined for debt. They complained loudly, that whilst fighting abroad for liberty and dominion, they were captured and oppressed at home by their fellow citizens; and that the liberty of the people was more secure in war than in peace, among enemies than among their fellow citizens; and this feeling of discontent, increasing of itself, the striking sufferings of an individual still further aggravated. A certain person advanced in years threw himself into the forum with all the badges of his miseries on him. His clothes were all over squalid, the figure of his body still more shocking, being pale and emaciated. In addition, a long beard and hair had impressed a savage wildness on his countenance; in such wretchedness he was known notwithstanding, and they said that he had been a centurion, and compassionating him they mentioned openly other distinctions (obtained) in the service: he himself exhibited scars on his breast, testimonies of honourable battles in several places. To persons repeatedly inquiring, whence that garb, whence that ghastly appearance of body, (the multitude having now assembled around him almost like a popular assembly,) he says, “that whilst serving in the Sabine war, because he had not only been deprived of the produce of his land in consequence of the depredations of the enemy, but also his residence had been burned down, all his effects pillaged, his cattle driven off, a tax imposed on him at a time very distressing to him, he had incurred debt; that this debt, aggravated by usury, had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of his other property; lastly that a pestilence, as it were, had reached his person. That he was taken by his creditor, not into servitude, but into a house of correction and a place of execution.” He then showed his back disfigured with the marks of stripes still recent. At the hearing and seeing of this a great uproar takes place. The tumult is now no longer confined to the forum, but spreads through the entire city. Those who were confined for debt, and those who were now at their liberty, hurry into the streets from all quarters and implore the protection of the people. In no place is there wanting a voluntary associate of sedition. They run through all the streets in crowds to the forum with loud shouts. Such of the senators as happened to be in the forum, fell in with this mob with great peril to themselves; nor would they have refrained from violence, had not the consuls, P. Servilius and Ap. Claudius, hastily interfered to quell the disturbance. The multitude turning towards them, and showing their chains and other marks of wretchedness, said that they deserved all this, taunting them (the consuls) each with the military services performed by himself, one in one place, and another in another. (History of Rome Bk.II)

  • 1
    for example the Athenian Seisachtheia was preceded by a degree of exodus
  • 2
    Athenaion Politeia 6
  • 3
    Athenaion Politeia 12.4 from Kenyon’s 1919 translation
  • 4
    in his striking Debt: the first 5,000 years
  • 5
    Neremiah 10, 31 “When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.”
  • 6

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