Socrates: debt and the cyclical rise and fall of societies

Last week I attended a wonderful conference in the university town of Tübingen, Germany, on “Debt: The First 3500 Years,” to bring ancient historians together to discuss David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years. I was enlightened by two papers in particular. Doctoral fellow Moritz Hinsch from Berlin collected what Socrates (470-399 BC) and other Athenians wrote about debt, and the conference’s organizer, Prof. John Weisweiler, presented the new view of late imperial Rome as being still a long way from outright serfdom. The 99 Percent were squeezed, but “the economy” grew – in a way that concentrated growth in the hands of the One Percent. ...

Democracy and Debt

Has the Link been Broken? *This article appeared in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung on December 5, 2011. Book V of Aristotle’s Politics describes the eternal transition of oligarchies making themselves into hereditary aristocracies – which end up being overthrown by tyrants or develop internal rivalries as some families decide to “take the multitude into their camp” and usher in democracy, within which an oligarchy emerges once again, followed by aristocracy, democracy, and so on throughout history. Debt has been the main dynamic driving these shifts – always with new twists and turns. It polarizes wealth to create a creditor class, whose oligarchic rule is ended as new leaders (“tyrants” to Aristotle) win popular support by cancelling the debts and redistributing property or taking its usufruct for the state. Since the Renaissance, however, bankers have ...

After the Ice Age

After the Ice Age: How Calendar-keeping shaped Early Social Structuring Michael Hudson (UMKC) in Paul G. Bahn, ed., An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack (American school of prehistoric research monograph series, Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books, 2009):149-53. I first met Alex Marshack in 1982 at a lecture he gave in New York City, where we both lived. That evening he described the Paleolithic “time-factored” notational systems and monuments that traced the rhythms of the moon and sun, and how Neolithic calendars governed the rhythms of planting and harvesting, as well as the rites of passage and social integration via festivals that were occasions for gift exchange and intermarriage. After the talk I introduced myself to him, and more than twenty years of friendship followed. I was writing a history of ...

The New Economic Archaeology of Debt

Introduction to Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East (ed. with Marc Van De Mieroop) (CDL Press, Baltimore, 2002) Economists, anthropologists and assyriologists have discussed the origins of debt and the setting of interest rates from such different perspectives that there has been remarkably little overlap or mutual discussion. Indeed, when economic theorists have ventured to speculate on the origins of debt, they usually have based their reasoning on a priori market-oriented principles rather than looking at the historical record. One of the aims of this colloquium is therefore to establish a more historically grounded basis for tracing the course of commercial and agrarian debt in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and the logic that underlay the Clean Slates that annulled agrarian and personal debts (while leaving commercial debts intact). Economists are ...

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City

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On the origins of cities as offshore banking centers - chapter 3 from my Urbanization volume, Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East (ed. with Baruch Levine) Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1999 The social sciences have long viewed the earliest cities as playing much the same role as they do in modern times: to serve as centers of government, and to undertake commerce and industry, reflecting the economies of scale resulting from their population growth. Such speculations assume an almost automatic and inevitable urbanization stemming from material causes, a combination of increasing population density and new technologies ("the agricultural revolution"). To the extent that political and military dynamics are recognized, they are of a character are more familiar in classical antiquity than in Neolithic Asia Minor and Early ...