cruelty and redemption

chapter 4 ‘Debt – the first 5000 years’ – David Graeber

We will buy the poor for silver, the
needy for a pair of sandals.
-Amos 2:6

THE READER MAY have noticed that there is an unresolved debate
between those who see money as a commodity and those who see it
as an IOU. Which one is it? By now, the answer should be obvious:
it’s both. Keith Hart, probably the best-known current anthropological
authority on the subject, pointed this out many years ago. There are,
he famously observed, two sides to any coin:

Look at a coin from your pocket. On one side is “heads”-the
symbol of the political authority which minted the coin; on the
other side is “tails”-the precise specification of the amount
the coin is worth as payment in exchange. One side reminds us
that states underwrite currencies and the money is originally a
relation between persons in society, a token perhaps. The other
reveals the coin as a thing, capable of entering into definite
relations with other things.

Clearly, money was not invented to overcome the inconveniences
of barter between neighbors-since neighbors would have no reason to
engage in barter in the first place. Still, a system of pure credit money
would have serious inconveniences as well. Credit money is based on
trust, and in competitive markets, trust itself becomes a scarce commodity.
This is particularly true of dealings between strangers. Within
the Roman empire, a silver coin stamped with the image of Tiberius
might have circulated at a value considerably higher than the value of
the silver it contained. Ancient coins invariably circulated at a value
higher than their metal content. This was largely because Tiberius’s
government was willing to accept them at face value. However, the
Persian government probably wasn’t, and the Mauryan and Chinese
governments certainly weren’t. Very large numbers of Roman gold and
silver coins did end up in India and even China; this is presumably the
main reason that they were made of gold and silver to begin with.
What’s true for a vast empire like Rome or China is obviously
all the more true for a Sumerian or Greek city-state, let alone anyone
operating within the kind of broken checkerboard of kingdoms, towns,
and tiny principalities that prevailed in most of Medieval Europe or
India. As I’ve pointed out, often what was inside and what was outside
were not especially clear. Within a community – a town, a city,
a guild or religious society – pretty much anything could function as
money, provided everyone knew there was someone willing to accept
it to cancel out a debt. To offer one particularly striking example, in
certain cities in nineteenth-century Siam, small change consisted entirely
of porcelain Chinese gaming counters – basically, the equivalent
of poker chips – issued by local casinos. If one of these casinos went
out of business or lost its license, its owners would have to send a crier
through the streets banging a gong and announcing that anyone holding such
chits had three days to redeem them. For major transactions,
of course, currency that was also acceptable outside the community
(usually silver or gold again) was ordinarily employed.
In a similar way, English shops, for many centuries, would issue
their own wood or lead or leather token money. The practice was often
technically illegal, but it continued until relatively recent times. Here is
an example from the seventeenth century, by a certain Henry, who had
a store at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire:

This is clearly a case of the same principle: Henry would provide
small change in the form of IOUs redeemable at his own store. As such,
they might circulate broadly, at least among anyone who did regular
business at that shop. But they were unlikely to travel very far from
Stony Stratford – most tokens, in fact, never circulated more than a few
blocks in any direction. For larger transactions, everyone, including
Henry, expected money in a form that would be acceptable anywhere,
including in Italy or France.
Throughout most of history, even where we do find elaborate markets,
we also find a complex jumble of different sorts of currency.
Some of these may have originally emerged from barter between foreigners:
the cacao money of Mesoamerica or salt money of Ethiopia
are frequently cited examples. Others arose from credit systems, or
from arguments over what sort of goods should be acceptable to pay
taxes or other debts. Such questions were often matters of endless
contestation. One could often learn a lot about the balance of political
forces in a given time and place by what sorts of things were acceptable
as currency. For instance: in much the same way that colonial
Virginia planters managed to pass a law obliging shopkeepers to accept
their tobacco as currency, medieval Pomeranian peasants appear
to have at certain points convinced their rulers to make taxes, fees,
and customs duties, which were registered in Roman currency, actually
payable in wine, cheese, peppers, chickens, eggs, and even herring, much
to the annoyance of traveling merchants, who therefore had
to either carry such things around in order to pay the tolls or buy
them locally at prices that would have been more advantageous to
their suppliers for that very reason. This was in an area with a free
peasantry, rather than serfs. They were in a relatively strong political
position. In other times and places, the interests of lords and merchants
prevailed instead.
Thus money is almost always something hovering between a commodity and a
debt-token. This is probably why coins – pieces of silver
or gold that are already valuable commodities in themselves, but that,
being stamped with the emblem of a local political authority, became
even more valuable – still sit in our heads as the quintessential form
of money. They most perfectly straddle the divide that defines what
money is in the first place. What’s more, the relation between the two
was a matter of constant political contestation.
In other words, the battle between state and market, between governments
and merchants is not inherent to the human condition.

Our two origin stories – the myth of barter and the myth of primordial
debt – may appear to be about as far apart as they could be, but in
their own way, they are also two sides of the same coin. One assumes
the other. It’s only once we can imagine human life as a series of
commercial transactions that we’re capable of seeing our relation to the
universe in terms of debt.

To illustrate, let me call a perhaps surprising witness, Friedrich
Nietzsche, a man able to see with uncommon clarity what happens
when you try to imagine the world in commercial terms.
Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals appeared in 1887. In it, he
begins with an argument that might well have been taken directly from
Adam Smith – but he takes it a step further than Smith ever dared to,
insisting that not just barter, but buying and selling itself, precede any
other form of human relationship. The feeling of personal obligation,
he observes,

has its origin in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship
there is, in the relationship between seller and buyer,
creditor and debtor. Here for the first time one person moved
up against another person, here an individual measured himself
against another individual. We have found no civilization still
at such a low level that something of this relationship is not
already perceptible. To set prices, to measure values, to think
up equivalencies, to exchange things – that preoccupied man’s
very first thinking to such a degree that in a certain sense
it’s what thinking itself is. Here the oldest form of astuteness
was bred; here, too, we can assume are the first beginnings of
man’s pride, his feeling of pre-eminence in relation to other
animals. Perhaps our word “man” (manas) continues to express directly
something of this feeling of the self: the human being describes
himself as a being which assesses values, which values and measures,
as the “inherently calculating animal”.
Selling and buying, together with their psychological attributes,
are even older than the beginnings of any form of social
organizations and groupings; out of the most rudimentary form of
personal legal rights the budding feeling of exchange, contract,
guilt, law, duty, and compensation was instead first transferred
to the crudest and earliest social structures (in their relationships
with similar social structures), along with the habit of
comparing power with power, of measuring, of calculating.

Smith, too, we will remember, saw the origins of language – and
hence of human thought – as lying in our propensity to “exchange one
thing for another,” in which he also saw the origins of the market.
The urge to trade, to compare values, is the very thing that makes us
intelligent beings, and different from other animals. Society comes
later, which means our ideas about responsibilities to other people
first take shape in strictly commercial terms.

Unlike with Smith, however, it never occurred to Nietzsche that
you could have a world where all such transactions immediately cancel
out. Any system of commercial accounting, he assumed, will produce
creditors and debtors. In fact, he believed that it was from this very
fact that human morality emerged. Note, he says, how the German
word schuld means both “debt” and “guilt.” At first, to be in debt
was simply to be guilty, and creditors delighted in punishing debtors
unable to repay their loans by inflicting “all sorts of humiliation and
torture on the body of the debtor, for instance, cutting as much flesh
off as seemed appropriate for the debt.” In fact, Nietzsche went so far
as to insist that those original barbarian law codes that tabulated so
much for a ruined eye, so much for a severed finger, were not originally
meant to fix rates of monetary compensation for the loss of eyes and
fingers, but to establish how much of the debtor’s body creditors were
allowed to take! Needless to say, he doesn’t provide a scintilla of
evidence for this (none exists). But to ask for evidence would be to
miss the point. We are dealing here not with a real historical argument
but with a purely imaginative exercise.
When humans did begin to form communities, Nietzsche continues, they
necessarily began to imagine their relationship to the community in these
terms. The tribe provides them with peace and security.
They are therefore in its debt. Obeying its laws is a way of paying it
back (“paying your debt to society” again). But this debt, he says, is
also paid – here too – in sacrifice:

Within the original tribal cooperatives – we’re talking about
primeval times – the living generation always acknowledged a
legal obligation to the previous generations, and especially to
the earliest one which had founded the tribe [ . . . ] Here the
reigning conviction is that the tribe only exists at all only
because of the sacrifices and achievements of its ancestors – and
that people have to pay them back with sacrifices and achievements.
In this people recognize a debt which keeps steadily growing
because these ancestors in their continuing existence as powerful
spirits do not stop giving the tribe new advantages and lending
them their power. Do they do this for free?
But there is no “for free” for those raw and “spiritually destitute”
ages. What can people give back to them? Sacrifices (at first as
nourishment understood very crudely), festivals, chapels, signs
of honor, above all, obedience – for all customs, as work of
one’s ancestors, are also their statutes and commands. Do people
ever give them enough? This suspicion remains and grows.

In other words, for Nietzsche, starting from Adam Smith’s assumptions about
human nature means we must necessarily end up with something very much
along the lines of primordial-debt theory.
On the one hand, it is because of our feeling of debt to the ancestors that
we obey the ancestral laws: this is why we feel that the community has the
right to react “like an angry creditor” and punish us for our transgressions
if we break them. In a larger sense, we develop a creeping feeling
that we could never really pay back the ancestors, that no sacrifice (not
even the sacrifice of our first-born) will ever truly redeem us. We are
terrified of the ancestors, and the stronger and more powerful a community
becomes, the more powerful they seem to be, until finally, “the
ancestor is necessarily transfigured into a god.” As communities grow
into kingdoms and kingdoms into universal empires, the gods themselves
come to seem more universal, they take on grander, more cosmic
pretentions, ruling the heavens, casting thunderbolts-culminating in
the Christian god, who, as the maximal deity, necessarily “brought
about the maximum feeling of indebtedness on earth”. Even our ancestor
Adam is no longer figured as a creditor, but as a transgressor, and
therefore a debtor, who passes on to us his burden of Original Sin:

Finally, with the impossibility of discharging the debt, people also come
up with the notion that it is impossible to remove the penance, the idea that
it cannot be paid off (“eternal punishment”) . . .
until all of a sudden we confront the paradoxical and horrifying expedient
with which a martyred humanity found temporary relief, that stroke of genius
of Christianity:
God sacrificing himself for the guilt of human beings, God paying himself back
with himself, God as the only one who can redeem man from what for human
beings has become impossible to redeem – the creditor sacrificing himself for
the debtor, out of love (can people believe that?), out of love for his

It all makes perfect sense if you start from Nietzsche’s initial premise. The
problem is that the premise is insane.
There is also every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the premise was insane;
in fact, that this was the entire point. What Nietzsche is doing here is starting
out from the standard, common-sense assumptions about the nature of human
beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent) – that we are
rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society,
that “society” itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the
resulting conflict. That is, he is starting out from ordinary bourgeois
assumptions and driving them to a place where they can only shock a bourgeois
It’s a worthy game and no one has ever played it better; but it’s a game played
entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois thought. It has nothing to say to
anything that lies beyond that. The best response to anyone who wants to take
seriously Nietzsche’s fantasies about savage hunters chopping pieces off each
other’s bodies for failure to remit are the words of an actual hunter-gatherer

  • an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen’s
    Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from
    an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful
    hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely.
    The man objected indignantly:

“Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And
since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear
anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get
tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and
by whips one makes dogs.”

The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and similar
statements about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can
be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting
societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could
make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human
meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or
remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that
doing so would inevitably create a world where we began “comparing
power with power, measuring, calculating” and reducing each other to
slaves or dogs through debt.
It’s not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits
throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to
calculate. If he wasn’t aware of it, he could not have said what he
did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of
propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive
us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one
is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as
the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our
civilization. If Nietzsche’s analysis of debt is helpful to us, then,
it is because it reveals that when we start from the assumption that human
thought is essentially a matter of commercial calculation, that buying
and selling are the basis of human society – then, yes, once we begin
to think about our relationship with the cosmos, we will necessarily
conceive of it in terms of debt.

I do think Nietzsche helps us in another way as well: to understand the
concept of redemption. Niezsche’s account of “primeval times” might
be absurd, but his description of Christianity – of how a sense of debt
is transformed into an abiding sense of guilt, and guilt to self-loathing,
and self-loathing to self-torture – all of this does ring very true.
Why, for instance, do we refer to Christ as the “redeemer”? The
primary meaning of “redemption” is to buy something back, or to
recover something that had been given up in security for a loan; to acquire
something by paying off a debt. It is rather striking to think that
the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of
God’s own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be
framed in the language of a financial transaction.
Nietzsche might have been starting from the same assumptions as
Adam Smith, but clearly the early Christians weren’t. The roots of this
thinking lie deeper than Smith’s with his nation of shopkeepers. The
authors of the Brahmanas were not alone in borrowing the language
of the marketplace as a way of thinking about the human condition.
Indeed, to one degree or another, all the major world religions do this.
The reason is that all of them – from Zoroastrianism to Islam arose amidst
intense arguments about the role of money and the market in human life,
and particularly about what these institutions meant for fundamental
questions of what human beings owed to one another.
The question of debt, and arguments about debt, ran through every
aspect of the political life of the time. These arguments were set amidst
revolts, petitions, reformist movements. Some such movements gained
allies in the temples and palaces. Others were brutally suppressed .
Most of the terms, slogans, and specific issues being debated, though,
have been lost to history. We just don’t know what a political debate
in a Syrian tavern in 750 BC was likely to be about. As a result, we have
spent thousands of years contemplating sacred texts full of political
allusions that would have been instantly recognizable to any reader at
the time when they were written, but whose meaning we now can only
guess at.
One of the unusual things about the Bible is that it preserves some
bits of this larger context. To return to the notion of redemption:
the Hebrew words padah and goal, both translated as “redemption,”
could be used for buying back anything one had sold to someone else,
particularly the recovery of ancestral land, or to recovering some object
held by creditors in way of a pledge. The example foremost in
the minds of prophets and theologians seems to have been the last: the
redemption of pledges, and especially, of family members held as debt
It would seem that the economy of the Hebrew kingdoms, by
the time of the prophets, was already beginning to develop the same
kind of debt crises that had long been common in Mesopotamia: especially
in years of bad harvests, the poor became indebted to rich neighbors or
to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would begin to
lose title to their fields and to become tenants on what had been their
own land, and their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as
servants in their creditors’ households, or even sold abroad as slaves.
The earlier prophets contain allusions to such crises, but the book of
Nehemiah, written in Persian times, is the most explicit:

Some also there were that said, “We have mortgaged our lands,
vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the
There were also those that said, “We have borrowed money
for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.
“Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children
as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons
and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters
are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power
to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards. “
And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.
Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and
the rulers, and said unto them, “Ye exact usury, every one of
his brother.” And I set a great assembly against them.

Nehemiah was a Jew born in Babylon, a former cup-bearer to the
Persian emperor. In 444 Be, he managed to talk the Great King into
appointing him governor of his native Judaea. He also received
permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed
by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier. In the course of
rebuilding, sacred texts were recovered and restored; in a sense, this
was the moment of the creation of what we now consider Judaism.
The problem was that Nehemiah quickly found himself confronted
with a social crisis. All around him, impoverished peasants were
unable to pay their taxes; creditors were carrying off the children of
the poor. His first response was to issue a classic Babylonian-style
“clean slate” edict – having himself been born in Babylon, he was clearly
familiar with the general principle. All non-commercial debts were to be
forgiven. Maximum interest rates were set. At the same time, though,
Nehemiah managed to locate, revise, and reissue much older Jewish
laws, now preserved in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, which
in certain ways went even further, by institutionalizing the principle.
The most famous of these is the Law of Jubilee: a law that stipulated
that all debts would be automatically cancelled “in the Sabbath year”
(that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in
bondage owing to such debts would be released.
“Freedom,” in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above
all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the
Jewish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation
from bondage in Egypt was God’s first, paradigmatic act of redemption; the
historical tribulations of the Jews (defeat, conquest, exile) were seen
as misfortunes that would eventually lead to a final redemption with
the coming of the Messiah – though this could only be accomplished,
prophets such as Jeremiah warned them, after the Jewish people truly
repented of their sins (carrying each other off into bondage, whoring
after false gods, the violation of commandments). In this light, the
adoption of the term by Christians is hardly surprising. Redemption
was a release from one’s burden of sin and guilt, and the end of history
would be that moment when all slates are wiped clean and all debts
finally lifted when a great blast from angelic trumpets will announce
the final Jubilee.
If so, “redemption” is no longer about buying something back.
It’s really more a matter of destroying the entire system of accounting.
In many Middle Eastern cities, this was literally true: one of the
common acts during debt cancelation was the ceremonial destruction
of the tablets on which financial records had been kept, an act to be
repeated, much less officially, in j ust about every major peasant revolt
in history.
This leads to another problem: What is possible in the meantime,
before that final redemption comes? In one of his more disturbing
parables, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus seemed to be
explicitly playing with the problem :

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to
settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a
man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and
his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay
the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with
me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s
master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow
servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him
and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be
patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown
into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants
saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and
went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he
said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you
begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow
servant just as I had on you ?” In anger his master turned him
over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all
he owed.

This is quite an extraordinary text. On one level it’s a joke; in others,
it could hardly be more serious.
We begin with the king wishing to “settle accounts” with his servants.
The premise is absurd. Kings, like gods, can’t really enter into
relations of exchange with their subjects, since no parity is possible.
And this is a king who clearly is God. Certainly there can be no final
settling of accounts.
So at best we are dealing with an act of whimsy on the king’s part.
The absurdity of the premise is hammered home by the sum the first
man brought before him is said to owe. In ancient Judaea, to say someone
owes a creditor “ten thousand talents” would be like now saying
someone owes “a hundred billion dollars”. The number is a joke, too;
it simply stands in for “a sum no human being could ever, conceivably,
Faced with infinite, existential debt, the servant can only tell obvious
lies: “a hundred billion? Sure, I’m good for it! Just give me a little
more time.” Then, suddenly, apparently just as arbitrarily, the Lord
forgives him.
Yet, it turns out, the amnesty has a condition he is not aware of. It
is incumbent on his being willing to act in an analogous way to other
humans – in this particular case, another servant who owes him (to
translate again into contemporary terms), maybe a thousand bucks.
Failing the test, the human is cast into hell for all eternity, or “until
he should pay back all he owed, “which in this case comes down to the
same thing.
The parable has long been a challenge to theologians. It’s normally
interpreted as a comment on the endless bounty of God’s grace and
how little He demands of us in comparison – and thus, by implication,
as a way of suggesting that torturing us in hell for all eternity is not
as unreasonable as it might seem. Certainly, the unforgiving servant is
a genuinely odious character. Still, what is even more striking to me
is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness, in this world, is ultimately
impossible. Christians practically say as much every time they recite the
Lord’s Prayer, and ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive
our debtors.” It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and
the implications are similarly dire. After all, most Christians reciting
the prayer are aware that they do not generally forgive their debtors.
Why then should God forgive them their sins?
What’s more, there is the lingering suggestion that we really
couldn’t live up to those standards, even if we tried. One of the things
that makes the Jesus of the New Testament such a tantalizing character
is that it’s never clear what he’s telling us. Everything can be read two
ways. When he calls on his followers to forgive all debts, refuse to cast
the first stone, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, to hand over
their possessions to the poor – is he really expecting them to do this?
Or are such demands just a way of throwing in their faces that, since
we are clearly not prepared to act this way, we are all sinners whose
salvation can only come in another world – a position that can be (and
has been) used to justify almost anything? This is a vision of human life
as inherently corrupt, but it also frames even spiritual affairs in
commercial terms: with calculations of sin, penance, and absolution, the
Devil and St. Peter with their rival ledger books, usually accompanied
by the creeping feeling that it’s all a charade because the very fact that
we are reduced to playing such a game of tabulating sins reveals us to
be fundamentally unworthy of forgiveness.
World religions, as we shall see, are full of this kind of ambivalence.
On the one hand they are outcries against the market; on the
other, they tend to frame their objections in commercial terms – as if
to argue that turning human life into a series of transactions is not a
very good deal. What I think even these few examples reveal, though,
is how much is being papered over in the conventional accounts of the
origins and history of money. There is something almost touchingly
naive in the stories about neighbors swapping potatoes for an extra
pair of shoes. When the ancients thought about money, friendly swaps
were hardly the first thing that came to mind.
True, some might have thought about their tab at the local alehouse, or,
if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses,
account books, exotic imported delights. For most, though, what was
likely to come to mind was the selling of slaves and ransoming of
prisoners, corrupt tax-farmers and the depredations of conquering armies,
mortgages and interest, theft and extortion, revenge and punishment,
and, above all, the tension between the need for money to create families,
to acquire a bride so as to have children, and use of that same
money to destroy families – to create debts that lead to the same wife
and children being taken away. “Some of our daughters are brought
unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them.” One
can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally, to a father in
a patriarchal society in which a man’s ability to protect the honor of
his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the majority
of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of
one’s sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive
strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services,
to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, possibly
for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless,
avoiding eye contact with their neighbors, who knew exactly what was
happening to those they were supposed to have been able to protect.
Clearly this was the worst thing that could happen to anyone – which
is why, in the parable, it could be treated as interchangeable with being
“turned over to the jailors to be tortured” for life. And that’s just
from the perspective of the father. One can only imagine how it might
have felt to be the daughter. Yet, over the course of human history,
untold millions of daughters have known (and in fact many still know)
exactly what it’s like.
One might object that this was just assumed to be in the nature
of things: like the imposition of tribute on conquered populations, it
might have been resented, but it wasn’t considered a moral issue, a
matter of right and wrong. Some things just happen. This has been the
most common attitude of peasants to such phenomena throughout human
history. What’s striking about the historical record is that in the
case of debt crises, this was not how many reacted. Many actually did
become indignant. So many, in fact, that most of our contemporary
language of social justice, our way of speaking of human bondage and
emancipation, continues to echo ancient arguments about debt.
It’s particularly striking because so many other things do seem to
have been accepted as simply in the nature of things. One does not see
a similar outcry against caste systems, for example, or for that matter,
the institution of slavery. Surely slaves and untouchables often
experienced at least equal horrors. No doubt many protested their
Why was it that the debtors’ protests seemed to carry such greater
moral weight? Why were debtors so much more effective in winning
the ear of priests, prophets, officials, and social reformers? Why
was it that officials like Nehemiah were willing to give such
sympathetic consideration to their complaints, to inveigh, to summon
great assemblies?
Some have suggested practical reasons: debt crises destroyed the
free peasantry, and it was free peasants who were drafted into ancient
armies to fight in wars. No doubt this was a factor; clearly it wasn’t
the only one. There is no reason to believe that Nehemiah, for instance,
in his anger at the usurers, was primarily concerned with his ability
to levy troops for the Persian king. It is something more fundamental.
What makes debt different is that it is premised on an assumption
of equality.
To be a slave, or lower-caste, is to be intrinsically inferior. We are
dealing with relations of unadulterated hierarchy. In the case of debt,
we are dealing with two individuals who begin as equal parties to a
contract. Legally, at least as far as the contract is concerned, they are
the same.
We can add that, in the ancient world, when people who actually
were more or less social equals loaned money to one another, the terms
appear to have normally been quite generous. Often no interest was
charged, or if it was, it was very low. “And don’t charge me interest,”
wrote one wealthy Canaanite to another, in a tablet dated around
1200 BC, “after all, we are both gentlemen. “Between close kin, many
“loans” were probably, then as now, just gifts that no one seriously
expected to recover. Loans between rich and poor were something
else again.
The problem was that, unlike status distinctions like caste or slavery,
the line between rich and poor was never precisely drawn. One can
imagine the reaction of a farmer who went up to the house of a wealthy
cousin, on the assumption that “humans help each other,” and ended
up, a year or two later, watching his vineyard seized and his sons and
daughters led away. Such behavior could be justified, in legal terms, by
insisting that the loan was not a form of mutual aid but a commercial
relationship – a contract is a contract. (It also required a certain
reliable access to superior force.) But it could only have felt like a
terrible betrayal. What’s more, framing it as a breach of contract meant
stating that this was, in fact, a moral issue: these two parties ought to
be equals, but one had failed to honor the bargain. Psychologically, this
can only have made the indignity of the debtor’s condition all the more
painful, since it made it possible to say that it was his own turpitude
that sealed his daughter’s fate. But that just made the motive all the
more compelling to throw back the moral aspersions: “Our flesh is as
the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children.” We are all
the same people. We have a responsibility to take account of one another’s
needs and interests. How then could my brother do this to me?
In the Old Testament case, debtors were able to marshal a particularly
powerful moral argument – as the authors of Deuteronomy constantly
reminded their readers, were not the Jews all slaves in Egypt, and had
they not all been redeemed by God? Was it right, when they had all been
given this promised land to share, for some to take that land away from
others? Was it right for a population of liberated slaves to go about
enslaving one another’s children?
But analogous arguments were being made in similar situations almost
everywhere in the ancient world: in Athens, in Rome, and for that matter,
in China – where legend had it that coinage itself was first invented by
an ancient emperor to redeem the children of families who had been forced
to sell them after a series of devastating floods.
Through most of history, when overt political conflict between
classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation – the
freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of
the land. What we see, in the Bible and other religious traditions, are
traces of the moral arguments by which such claims were justified, usually
subject to all sorts of imaginative twists and turns, but inevitably,
to some degree, incorporating the language of the marketplace itself.

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