The idea of “Jubilee Economics” has been appearing in the public discourse more and more since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what exactly is Jubilee? Who does it help? Why should it be implemented?
Through this eight-part series, Heretic editor Ryan Lindsey gives an ethics- and faith-based case for the radical economic and social concept of Jubilee.
How to Start a Jubilee
Look back through history. Often times it easy to focus on the bad – the wars, the disasters, the plagues, the genocides, etc. But for now, let’s focus on the overlap of the good and the political. Think of one positive political change, preferably one that has happened during your lifetime.
Once you have that change in mind, expand on it: think about all the individuals, groups, events, and processes that were involved in making that change go from a dream to a reality. I’m almost one-hundred percent certain that you’re list will be long and never fully complete.
The point is that positive change always starts off as someone’s dream. To have a better future, we must first imagine a better future. To have a future where people and nations are no longer enslaved in debt, we must first imagine that future. Then, we can start the good work of implementing the dream.
In parts I and II of this series, I wrote about the Jubilee traditions that the ancient Jewish culture had established in order to cancel debts, free the enslaved and imprisoned, redistribute land and wealth, and leave the earth to provide from its own abundance.
Centuries before the time of Christ, the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonian Empire and brought into exile. Eventually, the Jews were allowed by Babylon to return to their homeland of Palestine. Nehemiah – a Jewish leader – was appointed to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem after the Jew’s return from exile. Many in the lower classes of Jewish society were hoping that the time in exile would have been transformative in an economic and social sense, but were grossly disappointed when soon after the exile happened, times of bad harvest were resulting in many people once again drowning in debt. Children were being sold into slavery, the rich and elite were once again conducting an economic conquest of the nation’s land, and inequality exploded.
As is almost always the case, those suffering from injustice were the first to cry out against it. Nehemiah was touched with concern and compassion and for those afflicted by debt and joined their protests. And just like the positive political change you thought of at the start of this article, this story too has a happy ending: the rich and powerful returned the land and wealth they had unjustly acquired, and the burden of debt was lifted (or at least lightened) for many.
This story is recorded in Chapter 5 of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, in verses 1 through 13:
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brethren. 2 For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many; let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.”
3 There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.”
4 And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax upon our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children are as their children; yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved; but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.”
6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them, 8 and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brethren who have been sold to the nations; but you even sell your brethren that they may be sold to us!” They were silent, and could not find a word to say.
9 So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover I and my brethren and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us leave off this interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the hundredth of money, grain, wine, and oil which you have been exacting of them.”
12 Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.”
And I called the priests, and took an oath of them to do as they had promised. 13 I also shook out my lap and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not perform this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.”
And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
I can’t help but smile and pump my fist in the air when I read that story. Excitingly, this is not the only example of Jubilee in Old Testament. Even more excitingly, these stories from the Old Testament are not even the only evidence of debt cancellation – times of Jubilee – took place in the ancient world.
American sociologist David Graeber (author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt: The First 5000 Years, among other works) has studied the history of debt and debt cancellation extensively. In Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber discusses how in ancient Mesopotamia (a region that mostly includes Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait) bad harvest years often led to massive amounts of debt slavery, and how farmers were forced to flee their homes and communities or face severe punishments as a result of being unable to repay debts. These farmers that fled often formed nomadic bands that would roam the region, plundering and causing all kinds of civil and political unrest. Eventually, the pressure of these nomadic bands forced the elite to reckon with the situation they had created. Graeber writes that:
Kings periodically announced general amnesties [or] ‘clean slates’… Such decrees would typically declare all outstanding debt null and void (commercial debts were not affected), return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons [slaves] to return to their families.David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years
Graeber goes on to speculate that the examples of Jubilee that the Jewish people in exile witnessed in Babylon – combined with their ancient Mosaic tradition of Jubilee – inspired the lower-class Israelites and Nehemiah to adopt the radical policies of Jubilee economics when they return to Palestine.
I wrote about the debt catastrophe in Jamaica in part II of this series. Unfortunately, Jamaica’s situation was not at all unique. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large majority of developing countries were affected by debt crises. Insane amounts of money had been loaned to these countries by American, British, and Japanese banks in the 1970s, and that lent money had originally come from oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, which had restricted the oil supply to hike up the price, brought in huge cash flow that they lent to these international banks rather than spending.
At the start of the 80s, the U.S. government began increasing the interest rates on these debts, at the same time that the prices of the exports from these indebted countries was falling steadily. Developing countries were even less-able to repay their debts, but new loans were still being given by the International Monetary Fund and World Banks to governments that were used to pay their creditor banks, and the burden of debt continued to compile.
The governments of these developing nations were forced to cut spending on public goods and services (without any private alternatives in place) and replace their economies with cash crop exports. The results of these changes was horrendous, and led to protests across the globe in the 90s. In the mid-90s, many groups and activists began to call for a “millennium jubilee” to mark the year 2000. Over 70,000 people protested a meeting of rich states in Birmingham in 1998. Over 20 million across the world signed petitions for these international debts to be cancelled.
Slowly but surely, some world leaders began to respond. Schemes were created to cancel the debts for some countries, although large strings (more accurately, ropes) were attached to these schemes, such as complying with even more IMF and World Bank policies. For example, Tanzania had to privatize their water utilities. Malawi was forced to sell off their country’s grain reserves, one year before a deadly food crisis outbreak.
At this point, over $130 billion worth of international debt has been cancelled for nearly 40 countries. Millions of people now have access to much-improved health and education services as a result. In fact, in countries that have experienced debt cancellation, the number of children enrolled in primary/elementary school has increased from 6 out of 10 in the year 2000 to 8 out of 10 by 2010.
Unfortunately, in many countries such as Jamaica and El Salvador, the destructive and dehumanizing cycle of debt has continued largely unhindered.
The South American country of Ecuador was strangled by debt all throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. Social activist movements in the country sprang up and protested against the payment of debts, debts that had been taken on almost entirely by pat dictators without public support. The people of Ecador demanded a public audit of their nation’s debts, in order to sort out which should be viewed as legitimate and which should be viewed as illegitimate.
In 2008, then-President Rafael Correa launched that audit. The result was the “illegitimization” of many of the nation’s debts, due to illegalities to do with the taking on of the debt, and the nature of the former regimes. The audit also found that these debts had caused “incalculable damage” to Ecuador’s economy. President Correa simply announced that his country would no longer make payments on these debts, and the lenders were forced to renegotiate the debts, resulting in the total cancellation of several.
We can see from the ancient world, the Old Testament, and the turn of the century that Jubilee economics are possible. But first they must be imagined.
How was the Jubilee discussed in Nehemiah brought about, and how can we apply those lessons today?
How does that positive change relate to the positive change you thought of at the start of this article?
What kind of unjust debts should be cancelled today?
How can more ethical lending be encouraged (on personal, commercial, and international fronts)?