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

Originally published at http://www.criticallegalthinking.com 

Author: Stephen Connelly

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.1  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).2  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…3

The second case is in fact the earliest type, and Graeber 4 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.5

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.6  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 §23)

In the face of growing dissent the patricians removed the army to the outskirts of Rome, and following them the commons retired to theMons Sacer, declaring that they would found a new town there if their demands were not met.  They plebeians effectively threatened to secede from Rome and thus bring it to its knees; virtually an entire population decamped and refused to play their creditors’ games anymore.

Each type of ‘occupation’, within the city, on the edge, or beyond in the nomadic ‘wastes’, seems to have had a particular result.  In the case of the secessio plebis there were instituted certain governmental and juridical reforms, firstly by the creation of tribunes, and during later secessions holy laws governing public matters, then a full legal code, and finally a recognition of plebiscites.  Thus Livy writes of the first secession:

Then a commencement was made to treat of a reconciliation, and among the conditions it was allowed, “that the commons should have their own magistrates, with inviolable privileges, who should have the power of bringing assistance against the consuls, and that it should not be lawful for any of the patricians to hold that office. (History of Rome Bk II §33)

It should not be doubted, however, that the leaders of Rome quickly learned to sweeten reforms with bread and circuses, if not pre-empt them.  As we have discussed, exodus was resolved through ama-gi, or debt forgiveness on a grand scale.  Finally, the throwing off of burdens was its own resolution, inverting exodus by casting out the rulers and completing secession by founding a new community in the metaphorical (or actual) ruins of the old.

Today we see aspects not only of secessio plebis and a nascent throwing off of burdens, blended in the Occupy movements’ decision at once to secede within the very heart of financial capitals, but, in the striking cases of tent cities that have sprung up for example in Lakewood, New Jersey, also forced exodus as the newly homeless battle with planning laws to erect basic shelters on the edges on established cities.  It is perhaps for this reason that general debt forgiveness has returned to the agenda as a non-violent panacea.  Yet of the many differences that mark out modern times, perhaps of great relevance is the role of debt.  In antiquity in each of the cases debt operated as a lubricant to an underlying agricultural economy, whereby farmers fell into peonage only if successive harvests failed; slavery built up over time and the underlying agricultural economy suffered as farms were repossessed into unwieldy aristocratic estates deploying slave labour.  Release from debt here promised a return to agriculture and plenty.  Today our harvest is debt itself, and this is perhaps what makes the very thought of forgiveness such “folly”.  For a debt forgiven is a crop ploughed into its earth, and the naked earth may seem shocking to those who have gorged through a ripening summer.  Yet the farmer knows that it is the field, not its crop or its boundaries, that is primary.  Perhaps it is time for a fallow year.

Stephen Connelly tutors on international financial law at Birkbeck College, London.

  1. for example the Athenian Seisachtheia was preceded by a degree of exodus 
  2. Athenaion Politeia 
  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. http://www.libertyfund.org/termsofservice.html 

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported license.


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