…And Forgive Them Their Debits: Lending, Foreclosure, And Redemption From Bronze Age Finance To The Jubilee Year, by Michael Hudson
I wanted to like this book more than I did. In this book’s favor, it can be said that the theme of debt forgiveness and the importance of a free peasant class that is not burdened with debts to parasitic rentier elements within society is certainly a useful one. The author also speaks with a great deal of personal experience in the matter, speaking as an advocate of heavily indebted Latin American nations whose defaults in the 1980’s were a subject of considerable controversy in the role of the IMF in global finance. Yet this book does not succeed as well as it does because the author shows a great deal of focus on Bronze age Mesopotamia as holding the solution to indebtedness when it actually was the reason why the debt trap for poor farmers existed in the first place and because the author adopts bogus and lamentably incorrect documentary hypotheses regarding the biblical record, which is not given the full credit it deserves when it comes to the Sabbath principle. This book could have been so much better than it was, but the author’s anti-biblical bias unfortunately makes this work a missed opportunity.
This book is between 250 and 300 pages and it is is divided into four parts and 29 relatively short chapters. The book begins with a discussion of the rise and fall of debt cancellation, a discussion of archaic economies, and the major themes of the book. After that the author gives an overview (I) with a discussion of the Babylonian perspective of liberty and economic order (1), Jesus’ first sermon and the tradition of debt amnesty (2), and a discussion of the contexts of credit, debt, and money (3). The author then looks at the social origins of debt (II), through a look at the anthropology of debt (4), creditors as predators (5), the origins of commercial interest in Sumer (6), and rural usury as a means of imposing bondage and privatizing the commons (7). The next fourteen chapters discuss the invention of usury in the Bronze Age and the way that humane and shrewd rulers in Mesopotamia and nearby areas sought to counter its adverse effects (8-21). The rest of the book discusses the biblical legacy of debt, which is unfortunately marred by a refusal to take the biblical writings as being contemporary and historical because of the author’s blinkered insistence on holding to documentary views of the law and prophets (22-29). The book then ends with an index and bibliography.
Besides the lamentable aspects of the author’s bias, there are some elements of this book that are deeply unfortunate as well in that the author appears to promise more than he delivers in terms of the contents of this book. Rather than being a full account of the problem of debt and how it has been managed by different societies, some which did it well and some (like late Republican Rome and our own society) which have done it poorly, this book is really only the first half or even the first third of the story. So long as the reader is able to correct what the writer says about the Bible and keep it in mind and so long as the reader is able to properly expect the limited materials and scope of this work given the broadly expansive discussion that the author makes in his introduction, this work can be profitably read. Even if one does not agree with the author’s politics, a strong case can be made for the importance of periodic debt forgiveness and for the social benefits of a sturdy class of modest but patriotic free farmers in preserving the national well-being in ways that corrupt rentier classes cannot do, and that is good enough for this book to be modestly worthwhile.