Labour in the Ancient Near East

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A new transcription of an earlier recording. One of the first interviews where Michael talked about the Ancient Near East.

KARL FITZGERALD: 3CR, radio that’s independent, progressive and making a difference. And welcome to The Renegade Economists with your host, Karl Fitzgerald. This week, we’re stepping back in time, way back some 10,000 years BC, into the world of archaeology, Egyptology and Assyriology. Yes, it’s time for another special with Professor Michael Hudson. That’s right. Michael Hudson back on the show. 

He’s got a new book called “Labor in the Ancient World”. And I asked him to give us a bit of a precis on the background to this very interesting process. Hang on for another riveting conversation here on 3CR’s Renegade Economists. 

MICHAEL HUDSON: It’s a symposium of a group put together at Harvard University of all the leading Assyriologists and Egyptologists and Mycenaean Greek specialists and archaeologists on how early societies mobilized the labor force, especially for large public building projects such as temples, city walls and other infrastructure. 

KARL FITZGERALD: And this is published through who?

MICHAEL HUDSON: It’ll be published by ISLET-Verlag, the Institute for the Study of Long Term Economic Trends. We just finished the typesetting actually today, and they’re sending it to Amazon to be put on their list. It’ll probably be available in about three weeks.

KARL FITZGERALD: “Labor in the Ancient World”, and does that have some sort of Harvard connection? 

MICHAEL HUDSON: Yes, we originally founded this project 20 years ago at the Peabody Museum, which is their archaeology and anthropology department. We wanted to do a series of books at that time on how modern economies and practices begin. 

And our first colloquium (“Privatization in the ancient near East and classical world”) was in 1994 on privatization in the ancient Near East and classical world. 

Our second volume (“Urbanization and land ownership in the ancient Near East”) was on land ownership and urbanization, how cities were created and how land ownership and real estate patterns developed in a market for real estate. 

And the third volume (“Debt and economic renewal in the ancient Near East”) was on economic renewal in the ancient Near East, in other words, how there were debt cancellations in order to continue to restore the land to the cultivators to provide means of self-support for the population as a whole. 

But then the colloquia got so popular that we added a fourth volume (“Creating Economic Order: Record-keeping, Money and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East”) on creating economic order on the origins of money and account keeping from Mesopotamia to Mycenaean Greece and Egypt. 

And then 10 years ago, we had our fifth colloquium on labor in the ancient Near East. And there’s been so many revolutions in archaeology and Assyriology and even Egyptology in the last 10 years that we’re only publishing that volume now, brought completely up to date. 

KARL FITZGERALD: So the ancient Near East, how many thousand years ago was it? Just put us in the picture. 

MICHAEL HUDSON: We began the volume in 10,000 BC in Turkey, where you have very large city-like ceremonial sites larger than Stonehenge, huge sites that took hundreds of years to build with huge stone megaliths, even in the pre-pottery Neolithic. 

In other words, they didn’t have metal to carve these stones. They didn’t have pottery, but they had in Göbekli Tepe all sorts of huge carvings of an astronomical nature where people would come together on ceremonial times like midsummer, and work.

We dealt from Turkey in 10,000 BC to Sumer in the third millennium BC, Babylonia in the second millennium BC, the building of the pyramids. We have the actual bills and accounting statements for what’s paid labor to build the pyramids. We found they were not built by slaves. They were built by very well-paid, skilled labor. 

The problem in all these periods is, how do you get labor to go to work in a time which for 10,000 years there was a labor shortage? How do you get people to go to work if they don’t want to? They can just move somewhere else. All of this labor that was built on temples and big ceremonial sites had to be voluntary. Otherwise, people wouldn’t have gone there. 

We found a number of things. 

KARL FITZGERALD: Michael, how did you actually track this? What were you reading to get this information? 

MICHAEL HUDSON: Everybody who comes to the colloquium is a specialist in their period. For instance, Carl C. Amber-Karlowski is the archaeologist who was dealing with Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. We have Babylonian specialists. We have Egyptian specialists. 

Each person throughout all of these five volumes, we had a specialist in each time period and each geographical area for what we’re doing. 

KARL FITZGERALD: You were reading clay tablets, cuneiform? 

MICHAEL HUDSON: They basically read the clay tablets if they’re Mesopotamia. They read the stone carvings in the Egyptian pyramids on the inside of the big rock blocks that they make the pyramids out of. 

People would carve, I’m from this hometown and that hometown. There are also hieroglyphic records saying, here’s what we have to pay for the people. 

We also have royal inscriptions. One thing we found is that why do people go to work building all of this hard manual labor? One reason is it’s a big beer party. There are huge expenditures on beer. If you’re going to have a lot of people come voluntarily to do something like city building or constructing their own kind of national identity of a palace and walls, you’ve got to have plenty of beer. You also have plenty of meat, plenty of animals being sacrificed. 

What we found is that the people doing the manual labor on the pyramids, the Mesopotamian temples and city walls and other sites were given a very good high-protein meat diet. There were plenty of festivals. The way of integrating all of these people were in public feasts. They all felt that this was like joining their peer pressure group or their peer group, all creating a kind of national identity. 

KARL FITZGERALD: Back in those times, how on earth would they have realized when this festival was on? How was the communication spread that this was the time to come together? There’s a lot of things you guys have uncovered. 

MICHAEL HUDSON: We discussed this in the second volume of our series, “Urbanization and Land [Ownership] in the Ancient Near East”. They do it by the calendar. They do it by counting the moons and the solar solstices and equinoxes. 

All of the ceremonial sites, from Stonehenge to Turkey, are all based on the particular equinox or solstice, where you’d have a date that the chieftains, who would usually be the calendar keepers, would keep the calendar all the way going back to the Ice Age.

Around 29,000 BC, we have carved bones with the phases of the moon on. The job of the chieftain was to carve the phases of the moon, to calculate how long the month would be, to know that, ah, in this month, six months after the equinox, here’s where we have to get together and have everybody come and begin working on the big site. 

KARL FITZGERALD: I’m still trying to grasp this, Michael. All these laborers that would come together in this centralized place to build this giant statue or pyramid, based out of some sort of goodwill, what was it? 

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, to begin with, on the first, you’d have a big beer party to get everybody friendly. You’d have a big feast, big meals, and you have this all over the world, that communal feasts are the way of integrating societies. 

And then, obviously, somebody was in charge of designing these monuments. We don’t know whom, but they would carve the stones, they’d carry them over large distances, they’d transport them, just like in Stonehenge, they had to take these stones from a large distance. They’d quarry them, they’d cut them, and we’re dealing in a time before they invented steel or metal. Many of the stones had to be cut just by chipping away with other stones. So they do this very laborious type of business and work. 

Well, later, by about 2000 BC, you had a much more dense population. You would have a shift from the temples that originally organized most of this work to the palaces. And you would schematize and organize this labor coming together. So you’d say, okay, we’re going to divide up the land. And whoever has such and such a plot of land has to supply so many laborers to work on the temples and the palaces and the public infrastructure.

So what we found as a byproduct of the labor volume is that the origins of land rights were defined by the tax payments. In other words, in order to get the right to have a given amount of land of a given size, you had to promise on such and such a date to provide this much labor for the corvée project. It’s a French word because the corvée of paying taxes in the form of labor instead of payments went all the way down through the 18th century in France. And it was typical in medieval Europe before you had a money economy. 

So you’d have everybody who had their own subsistence land or their own land holdings of one form or another or their grazing lands would have to supply X number of laborers to the big building project. 

KARL FITZGERALD: That’s quite some discovery. So you’re saying that labor was provided as an in-kind payment for taxation based around calendars to build these giant monuments?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Yes. Every one of our archaeologists, Assyriologists, and Egyptologists have found for every period of the Bronze Age and the Neolithic.

KARL FITZGERALD: And so it was still rather on a voluntary level. There was no quantifying?

MICHAEL HUDSON: There was no [coercion]. We’re dealing with society— there weren’t that many people in the world in 2,000 B.C. or 3,000 B.C. or 10,000 B.C.

And what you have, when you would have a government that got too oppressive or when they would raise the contributions or taxes too high, people would just flee to another area. Or if they were too much indebted, the debtors would flee as they did from Babylonia around 1600 B.C. all the way down to Roman times.

KARL FITZGERALD: Right. So they had to build this social contract around these feasts, around this sense of belonging by being at this public works event. Sounds like a fascinating way to keep society on track and organize labor so that civilization would develop on some level. But have you found any indication on that managerial class and how they developed through the chieftains?

MICHAEL HUDSON: They were mainly the priesthoods. The calendar keepers were usually the chief, and most of the religions were basically cosmological. They wanted to create a whole cosmology of nature and society. And it all was based on astronomy, and it was all based on the calendar.

When you have tribes, a society divided into 12 tribes, as you had in Israel, but you also had it in Greece in the Amphictyonies. You also had it in Mesopotamia. The division of 12 tribes was so each of the tribes could take turns administering the ceremonial center for one month out of the year.

Cities were based on the calendar. You had cities. If they were big cities, they would have 12 gates. Most cities had maybe four gates, and the four gates represented the four seasons or the four quarters of the earth. The outline of the land and of the earth was all based on a two-dimensional cosmology. Like the cities were designed as calendars and miniatures. Well, so were the ceremonial sites, like Stonehenge was a calendar and miniature. So the light would fall on the stones in a particular way on a solstice. We have this going all the way back into the Ice Age, around 30,000 BC.

Alex Marshak’s article on the second volume on urbanization found that these sites already in the Ice Age were usually sited on waterways so that everybody could get to them. They often were sited in a way that from the site, you would have like mountains in the background, and it was in between the mountains that the sun would shine in a particular way that it would be on the equinox or on the solstice that you could have a particular pattern that occurred at that calendrical time, and they were really recreating on earth what the cosmos was.

KARL FITZGERALD: You’re on 3CR’s Renegade Economist, this week with distinguished Research Professor Michael Hudson from michael-hudson.com, and we’re discussing his new book, “Labor in the Ancient World”. We’re tracking back some 10,000 odd years, hearing about how civilization was developed.

Michael, this is a fascinating discussion, and I’m interested in, of course, here on the Renegades, about this role of land tenure, how that influenced citizens’ role in society. From what I’ve read out of your new book, it sounds like that land holdings, of course, played a huge role in the status of a participant in one’s society. 

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, in America, down to the time of the revolution in the 18th century, and in early Australia, I assume, also, in order to vote, in order to be a citizen, you had to be a landowner. All the way back in Rome and earlier times, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Sumer, in order to be a citizen, you had to have your own land, and in Rome, each citizen and his voting rights were defined by the land area that he owned. I say he because the landowner was a male, and only the males were citizens. It was a patriarchal society.

You had citizenship defined by land ownership. What that meant was, today, we have the great interference with land ownership as being finance. If you owe money on a mortgage and you can’t pay, you can be evicted. You had that begin to happen already around 2000 BC in Babylonia.

Well, this caused a real problem for rulers, because what do you do if a creditor evicts the landowner, takes over the land? Well, then all of a sudden, this former landowner is no longer a citizen, and if he’s not a citizen, he can’t serve in the army. One’s rank in the army, down through Roman times, was all defined by how much land one had. If you have just a little bit of land, you’re in the infantry. If you have a lot of land, then you have enough money to support yourself and enough leisure to have a horse and to participate in all the military training and the armor you had. It goes all the way, same thing in Japan. All over the world, the citizenship, the rank in the army, and land ownership were all together in a single comprehensive system.

KARL FITZGERALD: Yes, and through the English military, the same sort of things happened as well. You can see a point that if you own lots of land, you want to defend it so that these landowners need to be involved to defend their land. How times have changed.

MICHAEL HUDSON: They weren’t merely defending. They would also be aggressive, I’ve got to say. There was a continual attack, and the attacking or the defense also had a financial land ownership dimension. 

In Greece, there’s a military manual in the third century BC by a man who took the pseudonym of Tacticus. Not Tacitus as in Rome, but Tacticus for tactics. He wrote that if you’re attacking a city, what you do is you agree to cancel the debts and free all the slaves, and all the debtors are going to come over to your side. If you’re defending a city, then you also promise to cancel everyone’s debts and free the slaves, and that’s how you get people on your side.

That’s what Coriolanus did in Rome, and it’s what Zedekiah did in Israel, but both rulers went back on their word as soon as things were over.

But in Babylonia, we have continual debt cancellations. Whenever a new ruler would take the throne, and this is in our third volume, “Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East”, the ruler would proclaim underarum or misharum, a clean slate, and he would do three things. These three things are exactly what you get in the biblical jubilee year. You would free the debt slaves or the servants and let them return to their family of origin. You would cancel all of the debts that were owed, and you would return the land rights or the crop rights to debtors who had pledged them to their creditors. 

In other words, what you would do is restore order. You’d make things the way they were in an idealized past in which everybody owned their own land and could be able to provide their own means of subsistence free of debt. It’s the opposite of today’s idea of debt serfdom, reducing more and more of the population to debt peonage where all of their income has to be paid to creditors, and finally, if they lose their job, they lose their land and their house, and the banks get to keep it.

That idea depopulated the ancient world. If that would have happened, you’d have everybody just getting up and leaving, or they’d go over to the enemy when other armies that did have their own land would attack. You would have defections all the time. That sort of locked in the system of widespread land ownership and liberty from debt.

KARL FITZGERALD: Right. So reiterating the clean slate would build that social contract with the ruler and help continue the goodwill that led to this massive public development that was voluntarily provided, well, in kind really, tax in kind.

So that sounds fascinating that people would just defect and move to another country under another ruler if the debt stayed too high. Even back in those times when we weren’t anywhere near as mobile as today, that sort of behavior was going on.

MICHAEL HUDSON: That’s right. We have all sorts of documents, and especially the hapiro, who some people translate as Hebrews around the 14th century and 13th century, all were debt fugitives. Rome itself was said to be founded by exiles and runaways, mainly runaways from debt, who’d just created their own society there.

So it goes way back. It’s surprising one doesn’t have a similar idea today, but that’s why David Graeber picked up all of this history in his book on “Debt, The First [Five] Thousand Years”.

KARL FITZGERALD: The history of clean slate and the jubilee, how did the role of agrarian debt develop? And there was quite a battle between the creditors and the rulers. How did that all play out?

MICHAEL HUDSON: It played out differently everywhere. There was a constant tension by the Bronze Age through Classical Antiquity between central rulers who were trying to maintain society and local headmen who were trying to get the power for themselves.

So the big question is, who’s going to run society? Is it going to be the priesthood and the military rulers at the top of the pyramid, or is it going to be the creditors who are grabbing everybody’s land and trying to separate in the past?

And strong rulers, like Hammurabi, would centralize rule. But then you’d have periods called Intermediate Periods, where everything sort of fell apart and there was a free-for-all, and all of the local leaders came [out of]. 

Well, from 1200 BC to about 750 BC in the Mediterranean, you have a whole Dark Age. Apparently, you had not only very bad weather around 1200 BC, but the bad weather and crop failures, maybe a small ice age, and drought led to mass invasions, and all of the palaces were burned, and you have just the Dark Age for 500 years. And then when you have people emerging, the person who had been the local branch manager of the palace workshop all of a sudden appears as the Basilius, the ruler, because you could see when central power falls apart, the local guys take over, the dissolution of national power.

You had the same thing in England. After the Norman invasion, you had the Magna Carta. You had an autocratic ruler, King John, who was trying to grab all the money for himself, and then you had the landowners who wanted to break free. And the Magna Carta was saying, okay, you can’t tax us. The rent that we used to have to pay you to support the royal army, we’re going to keep for ourselves now, and the debts that we owe to the Jews, we don’t have to pay because they’re not allowed to earn land thanks to anti-Semitism.

And you have the founding documents of almost every nation have to do with the relationship between finance, land, and the relationship between central rulers’ power and local power. And you could say that the progress of civilization for the last thousand years since feudal times has been a dissolution of autocratic feudal power towards more and more democratized power.

The problem is that land has been democratized on credit, and so instead of owing money to landlords, homeowners now owe money to their bankers.

KARL FITZGERALD: That is the challenge of the ages, isn’t it? And looking through these writings of yours, it just becomes so clear that this battle between credit and the sovereignty of this democratic process has been an ongoing challenge. And in antiquity, did the vocabulary really distinguish interest from usury? 

MICHAEL HUDSON: No, there was only in the 13th century, really by Thomas Aquinas, was there a distinction between interest and usury. Any taking of interest was considered usury in antiquity. That’s why some people tried to ban it for consumer interest. And when usury, the distinction was made, usury was supposed to be for unproductive consumer loans, and interest was to be for bona fide commercial loans. The Italian word was agio, a foreign, a premium, so that bankers would try to get away around the Christian sanctions against usury by saying, okay, it’s not interest, it’s a fee. It’s a foreign exchange fee, and they would pretend to be making a foreign exchange transaction and paying for the foreign exchange convertibility. Like if you’re converting Australian pounds into dollars, you have to give a few percentages to the transactor. You had interest concealed as a foreign exchange fee, and as interest and various things like you do in today’s Islamic finance.

KARL FITZGERALD: So when we look over the history of this era and this battle between credit and the ruling elite, the challenge was over maintaining land ownership within your community and keeping your people there, making sure that they had some sort of share in the benefits of working together. And this sort of independence of people being able to live off their land seems to have been the battle between the democratic principles and the creditors again.

MICHAEL HUDSON: That’s basically so. And all of the earlier common law had blockages against it. So if you’re a creditor and you want to get somebody else’s land, how do you get it? Well, in Babylonia and also neighboring Indo-European speaking communities, such as the Hurrians in Nuzi, you would say, well, all of the land tenure rights are only transmissible within a family. So the family gets to keep control of its basic land. And so the creditors would get themselves adopted by the debtor as a number one son, as their heir, so that when the debtor died, the creditor would inherit the land as if he were part of the kinship based community.

There were all sorts of proverbs in Babylonia. A creditor has many relatives and things like that.

And so basically there were these subterfuges that the creditors would use as what you would call small print today. And creditors at Wall Street have always been very subtle in finding end runs around laws to obey the letter of the law and change the spirit of the law completely.

KARL FITZGERALD: Changing the spirit of the law, let’s speed into the current American situation with Elizabeth Warren and the Democratic ticket. I saw this week that she’s come out fighting against banks and their threat to reduce donations to the Democratic Party if Elizabeth Warren doesn’t tone things down. Did your blood boil when you read that, Michael?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Not at all. The Democratic Party in America, you have to realize, is to the right of the Republican Party. Basically, the Republicans could never get away without turning over power to Wall Street because as long as they’re in power, the Democratic opposition will block them from doing it. Although the Republican Party is almost entirely funded by lobbyists from corporations to Israel, the Democratic Party is the one that has the power to unblock the giveaways to Wall Street. And most of this is done under former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who was an administrator who got rid of the Glass-Steagall Act, who inaugurated the whole wave of crime going through banking. The Glass-Steagall Act and the lack of regulation for derivatives was done in 1999. It took only eight years for the most criminal organization, Citibank and Wall Street, to bring down the economy. And who was the head of Citibank? Rubin, having freed all the regulation, went to Citibank and ran what’s called the Rubino Gang, a group of corrupt criminals that essentially wrote fake mortgages. They’re called liar’s loans, or Alt-A, and sold them to gullible people like German Landesbanks, who believed that Wall Street wouldn’t try to cheat them, and essentially pulled the biggest ripoff in history.

You can read what my UMKC colleague Bill Black has written recently on Naked Capitalism and the University of Missouri-Kansas City site, New Economic Perspectives, on the Citibank criminal organization there.

But the Democrats, being in power under Obama, blocked any prosecution of criminals. Not a single bank crook has been thrown in jail after over $4 trillion have been stolen. The crime wave of Wall Street and real estate in the last decade has endowed an entire ruling class for the next century in America. And they’re absolutely vicious, more criminal than the Russian kleptocrats, because they’re in total control of the government.

And they’ve redefined free markets. To them, a free market is Wall Street completely free of any government regulations to control banking, and free of any criminal prosecution, because they have their guy in the Justice Department. The head of Justice Department is Eric Holder, whose job is to protect Wall Street. And he wants to resign recently in favor of a successor who also is a Wall Street lobbyist. So we’re about to have essentially the whole real estate and mortgage system in America has been criminalized in the way that Bill Black has been describing in four wonderful articles that he’s published in the last week on Naked Capitalism.

KARL FITZGERALD: Excellent, Michael. I’ll look forward to reading those. I mean, that’s the horror story of banking, but I like the fact that you’ve dug into the archives and found one of the bright spots for the finance industry, and that was the St. Simonian banking ethos. Can you remind our listeners what that was all about and what we hope the finance sector aspires to?

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, in the 19th century, of course, you had the Industrial Revolution just taking off. And the question is, how can you have banking serve the industrialization of countries? Before the 19th century, and all throughout antiquity, there’s not a single bank loan in antiquity, almost, that was ever made to build a factory or actual means of production. Loans were made against property, or they were made largely to ship goods, products, exports, once they were produced. But banking before the 19th century had never actually funded investment. James Watt wasn’t able to get the money for the steam engine from a bank, except by mortgaging his property and borrowing from friends.

So St. Simon and France said, look, we’ve got to industrialize France to catch up with England and overtake it. We’ve got to have banking, essentially, instead of making loans in exchange for interest payments, which can force them under and force them into bankruptcy when business turns down. Bank loans should really be a profit-sharing deal, as they were, by the way, way back in Babylonian times. And his idea of banks were more like mutual funds, whose fortunes would go up or down with those of the customer.

Well, the main country that adopted St. Simonian industrial banking was Germany, and also other Central European countries. And there the banks would take a position with their customers. They’d be stock owners, as well as creditors. They would support industry and act, basically, as the forward planning arm of industry.

And it was expected, until World War I, most futurists, from Karl Marx to just regular businessmen, expected banks to take the lead in planning society. But after World War I, Germany lost, and the world reverted to Anglo-American banking. And the Anglo-American banking was basically short-term, hit-and-run. They don’t make loans for industrial development. They make loans to take over companies, to take over industry, and to ship exports. But they’re really not plugged into how to actually fund industrialization and capital formation.

And so what we have is societies fallen back in the last 100 years to just the opposite of what classical economists and what 19th century futurists had expected to be.

So although we do have now a centrally planned society, centrally planned in Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt, and other financial centers, this planning is extractive, not productive. It’s seeking to extract interest payments to profiteer from takeovers and gambles, but it’s not designed to industrialize. And that’s why most of the world now, outside of China, is in a period of economic shrinking and de-industrialization.

KARL FITZGERALD: So to wrap things up, Michael, what can we learn from the ancient Near East? And perhaps you can enlighten how you got interested in this whole historical topic, going way back through these cuneiform readings of clay tablets.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the advantage of studying the ancient Near East is to see how different economies through history have dealt with the phenomenon of debts that are too large to be paid. Right now, you’re having in the Eurozone, with its arguments against Greece, saying, well, if you can’t pay your debt, you’ve had to submit to austerity. And if your population emigrates, as much of the Greek population is doing, you have to pay the price. Shrinkage and emigration is what to pay for debt cancellation.

The ancient Near East couldn’t afford the Greek Eurozone solution because they would have been depopulated and they would have been conquered by neighboring countries that didn’t submit to austerity program. So the advantage of studying the ancient Near East is to see a contrast in all this.

I got into this originally. I’d given a lecture. I was working with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in 1978 and 79. And we had a big meeting in Mexico. And I’d warned, I gave a lecture on what I’d found when I was Chase Manhattan Bank’s balance of payments economist, that the third world couldn’t pay its foreign debts. This was a few years before Mexico declared it couldn’t pay in 1982. And there was a riot. People were trying to beat up the Americans thinking they were me.

And there was such a fuss that I thought, gee, I’m going to write a history of how debts can’t be paid. And got all the way back into the Near East and found out there wasn’t any economic history of the Near East, that it was all scattered through many journals. And that’s when I went up to Harvard and we decided to put together this group to do an economic study, category by category, of how ancient economies actually developed the origins of modern economic civilization.

KARL FITZGERALD: Well, Michael Hudson, thank you very much for joining us here on the Renegade Economist radio show. Yet again, must be about our 10th interview, I reckon. Fantastic, Michael.

MICHAEL HUDSON: Good. Thank you.

 

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