The Gospel according to Saint Money
It’s a history condemned to repeat itself forever because, since the dawn of time, the enrichment of some has basically always been to the detriment of others. Inequality has often been described by the upper class as an inevitable side effect, systemic almost, of the prosperity and innovation that is however meant to benefit the whole community. In reality, this progress occurs by systematically pushing the most vulnerable well below the poverty line. Of all the drivers used in abundance that have allowed the fortune of some to grow over the ages, debt enjoys a place in the trophy cabinet because the inability of debtors to pay it off was effectively – since Antiquity – the pretext for seizing their possessions, dwellings, fields, and finally their freedom! In Debt:The First 5,000 Years, doesn’t David Graeber remind us that the word “freedom” comes from “amargi” in Sumerian, meaning freedom from debt?
The subjugation –pure and simple slavery even – of those who, throughout human history, have turned out to be deficient in the repayment of their debt was therefore for others one of the surest ways of building their wealth in the long term and of consolidating their power. Governments themselves had to regularly bow down – and not just in Medieval history! – to these creditors who couldn’t have cared less and who forced many nations to privatise their public services, and to stifle their citizens under the lead weight of austerity whose overall effect facilitated the emergence of private fortunes, wealth and power with no relation to what had come before. The mass of debt that conferred absolute power and wealth to some happy appointees has now reached aberrant levels because debt, on the whole, grows much faster than our economies!
It is therefore time to bring back an idea that terrorises our modernised societies because it is intellectually intolerable to them. On this matter and once again, the history of Babylonian, Sumerian, Greek, Roman and other civilisations offer us a solution: not all debts will be paid off. For example, the four public debt write-offs under the reign of Hammurabi (1792, 1780, 1771 and 1762 BC). Also those that occurred six centuries before Hammurabi in the city of Lagash in Sumer, and the thirty-odd public debt write-offs in Mesopotamia between 2400 and 1400 BC. On the Rosetta Stone itself, discovered on 15 July 1799 at Rashid by a Napoleonic soldier during the Egypt campaign, is written a text in hieroglyphics, Demotic (the Egyptian cursive script) and Greek that allowed Champollion to decipher a decree of 27 March 196 BC from Pharaoh Ptolemy V announcing an amnesty for debtors and prisoners. This falls in line with the leitmotif of social justice, particularly in the form of debt that chains poor people to the wealthy, always circling back to the history of Judaism, when write-offs for Jews in debt to their rich compatriots were announced. We can likewise read in Deuteronomy 15 “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is the manner of remission: Every creditor shall cancel what he has loaned to his neighbour. He is not to collect anything from his neighbour or brother.”
These proclamations and jubilees relieved populations, all the while allowing the reigning princes to reaffirm their position in the face of the oligarchical creditors of the time who fiercely opposed the periodical wiping of debt that prevented them from gaining more wealth. The Gospel of Luke indeed describes Jesus coming back to Nazareth, opening the Great Isaiah Scroll at verse 61 and announcing a new Jubilee for the poor, to the detriment of the Pharisees who held the financial power at the time. How is it that most of Jesus’s parables on debt are no longer taught today and, purely and simply, have been suppressed, like the greatly important prayer of Our Father itself that has been expunged of the word “debt” and replaced with “sin”.
In our current situation where nearly all the world’s debts are owed to 1% of its population, it is not really surprising that the vital instances of debt write-offs that have punctuated human history have been cast aside, renounced, and voluntarily forgotten, because it is of course not in the interests of oligarchs to cancel student debt, to relieve personal bankruptcies, or to allow certain sovereign debt restructurings… Capitalism, as we know, cannot prosper without the profit incentive. However, I t is heading straight for its self-destruction and demise if it continues to demand 99% of its society as sacrificial lambs.