The Ex-Communicator - Debt in the late classical period

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March 18th, 2012


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09:04 pm - Debt in the late classical period
I am still adoring Debt by David Graeber. It's so good. I think he makes a better case than I have read elsewhere for the benefits to the state of the mass religions of the late classical period, such as Reformed Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. While Karen Armstrong (for example) talks about how they provided metaphysical answers, Graeber emphasises how they put limits on the exploitation of the poor, particularly the charging of punitive interest and debt peonage. In terms of metaphysics I don't think the new religions are better than classical philosophy and paganism. But in terms of commercial practice, they are more disciplined and integrated as market regulators, because they developed in an urban context where exploitation already existed and was a major problem.

I also think that the anti-sex strand in the religions that developed in the late classical period might well be linked to the sexual exploitation of bonded workers and slaves (ie most people) in the late classical period. The upper classes sort of gave sex a bad name.

Graeber also describes how Empires fell, or came to the brink of collapse, time and time again due to debt running out of control. Over and over again new governments come in and wipe all the records clean, only to have the whole system of slavery and peonage build up again. And the upper classes always forget, and start overstepping the limits they set themselves, and in the end the new rulers become exploitative, and we spiral back into debt again.

Thank goodness we've left all that behind us, eh?

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From:kerravonsen
Date:March 18th, 2012 09:57 pm (UTC)
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And the upper classes always forget, and start overstepping the limits they set themselves, and in the end the new rulers become exploitative, and we spiral back into debt again.

There's a reason why the Old Testament is full of so many rants against The Rich...
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From:communicator
Date:March 18th, 2012 10:07 pm (UTC)
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He talks about how it was common for people to have to sell their children into slavery to pay their debts. Of course Judaism in that period also had a debt jubilee, where all slates were wiped clean. How severe the debt problem was that such a radical step was needed, every few years, just to stabilise the economy.

Also, interestingly, in ancient Sumerian the word for 'freedom' is 'go back to your mother' - I never understood that, but now I do. The debt slave was free to go back to her mother's house.
[User Picture]
From:kerravonsen
Date:March 18th, 2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
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How severe the debt problem was that such a radical step was needed, every few years, just to stabilise the economy.

I hadn't thought of that, but that's a good point.
What's sad about it is that, if I recall correctly, what with the cavalcade of bad kings interspersed with a few good ones, the Year of Jubilee wasn't enacted very often.

The debt slave was free to go back to her mother's house.
Ouch.
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From:happytune
Date:March 19th, 2012 11:10 am (UTC)
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So the debt-wiping clean thing happened on every seventh 'shmita' year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita). I know a bit about this because we had a shavuout 'do' a few years ago, where one of the people who came along happens to be a leading history prof at Oxford. :-) (http://www.orinst.ox.ac.uk/staff/hjs/mgoodman.html) And even with lots of whisky in us all, we had a most interesting time, because SC had recently given a talk in shul about the ancient rabbis had had the guts to introduce some practices that were aimed at improving social justice (the point being that that doesn't really happen anymore!). He'd given the prozbul (the authority of the court to take over the debt so that the debt wouldn't be wiped clean, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prozbul) as an example of social justice. This prof told us the following
- it isn't clear whether the prozbul was common practice in very ancient times, or was simple written in the religious texts. We know, however, that by the time of Hillel (1st century ACE, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder) it WAS common practice
- we don't really know whether it was implemented out of economic necessity, or out of an implementation of a religious text, because when Hillel implementated the prozbul, in the Talmud it says that he did this because people were refusing to lend to each other in the lead up to the shmita, and that this was causing hardship. The prof reckoned that this was a post hoc justification, and that the archaeological evidence suggests that rather, it was rather meant to support the accumulation of wealth into the hands of the rich. So the prozbul, and the shmita associated with it, became implemented not for altruistic reasons, but as a way of supporting major landowners at the expense of smallholders.

As you say, isn't it lucky we've moved beyond that...tax breaks for the rich, Osborne?
[User Picture]
From:happytune
Date:March 19th, 2012 09:15 pm (UTC)
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God. I've realised how many typos there were in that. Blame on recovery from gastro, tiredness, and the fact that I never have time to proofread anything anymore!
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From:communicator
Date:March 19th, 2012 09:22 pm (UTC)
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you know what my typing is like
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From:communicator
Date:March 19th, 2012 09:21 pm (UTC)
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Don't judge the book by my half-assed summary, but I get the impression that every religious reform was pulled in two ways: towards brotherhood and community and towards support for hierarchy.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 24th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, thank goodness! /bitter laugh

I was reading some Ellis Peters the other. One of her characters thinks something along the lines of 'the only good thing about slavery is that at least starving poor people can sell themselves into it and save their lives.' The welfare state: I am thankful for it.

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