Finance caused the fall of Rome

A politics of protecting contracts and property is a civilizational suicide pact.

Cory Doctorow
9 min readJul 8, 2022

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A debtor’s prison window; over its arch is the legend ‘Pray remember debtors having no allowance.’ Behind the bars is a skeletal figure in a student’s cap and gown. To the left is a pile of skulls surmounted by a raven.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that David Graeber’s 2012 blockbuster Debt: The First Five Thousand Years had on society; it’s a truly magesterial history of the way that debt — and debt forgiveness — played in the establishment of advanced civilization and its downfall:

https://www.tor.com/2012/04/16/the-best-science-fiction-ideas-in-any-non-fiction-ever-david-graebers-debt-the-first-five-thousand-years/

Graeber — a key Occupy activist who helped coin “We are the 99%” — drew heavily on the scholarship of Michael Hudson, an economic historian, who led a team of Harvard assyriologists, Egyptologists and archaeologists in a major project exploring the role of debt in antiquity.

Core to Hudson and Graeber’s work is the recognition that societies can be divided into “debtors” and “creditors,” and, depending on which group is favored by policy, different kinds of enduring, intergenerational social roles emerge. If we give primacy to creditors’ claims above all, then debtors will inevitably fall deeper and deeper into debt, and eventually become indentured servants to their creditors.

For example, since Babylonian times, farmers have borrowed — seed, labor and other inputs — against the year’s coming crop. This is built into the nature of agriculture — you need stock to sow, which is multiplied by cultivation and then reaped. But farming is also subject to unforseeable strokes of bad luck: blights, droughts, storms, and more. When these occur, the farmer can’t make good on their debts.

Hudson’s maxim is “debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” A farmer who loses a crop and falls deeper into debt to sow the next year’s crop will find themselves even further indebted as interest payments swamp even a bumper crop. The next year, things are worse — and then worse again.

Everyone who does productive work will eventually run up against bad luck. The mason’s stone will shatter, the smith’s forge will catch fire, the herder’s animals will sicken. If creditors are always protected, then eventually ever debtor will land at the bottom of an inescapable pit of debt, which their children and children’s will inherit.

Thus, if creditors’ interests are always protected in law, “creditor” and “debtor” cease to describe economic relations and instead come to describe hereditary castes. The productive economy, organized around making the things a civilization needs to sustain itself, will be subordinated to the whims of creditor-aristocrats, who can order the smith to make decorations rather than agricultural implements and make the farmer grow ornamental flowers instead of staple crops.

The civilizations of antiquity solved this problem with “jubilee” — periodic festivals of debt forgiveness that would wipe out debtors’ obligations and creditors’ rents:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/03/24/grandparents-optional-party/#jubilee

Graeber died early in the covid pandemic, just as the questions of debt and equity were coming into sharp focus. It was a moment in which creditors were demanding that debtors — mortgage holders, student debtors, payday borrowers — keep up their payments even as the productive economy ground to a halt. It was a crossroads where we faced the choice of maintaining our ability to feed, shelter and care for ourselves or maintaining the income streams of rentiers.

In the years since Graeber’s death, his widow, Nika Dubrovsky, has organized a series of seminars, conversations and publications that build on his work through this moment. These played out against the backdrop of the publication of Graeber’s final book, a collaboration with David Wengrow called The Dawn of Everything:

https://doctorow.medium.com/the-dawn-of-everything-6b74b658b986

Dawn challenges the orthodox view of civilizational emergence, a story of inevitable relationships between social relationships and social structures that says that as we inevitably proceed from family groups to hunter/gatherer bands to agriculture to cities, our politics grow ever-more centralized and authoritarian.

Drawing on the latest archaeological and anthropological evidence, Graeber and Wengrow show that there is nothing inevitable about our social structures. In prehistory, we find “play farmers” who practice agriculture while maintaining nomadism. We find great, dense cities with no bureaucracy or leaders; we find widely dispersed hamlets controlled by overweening bureaucracies. We find, per the title, Everything — every possible combination of social structure and politics.

What makes Dawn so powerful is that it rejects social inevitability, the fatalistic insistence that this is as good as it can get because of “human nature.” Dawn shows that human nature is a matter of choice, and that we can — and have — chosen all manner of relations.

The notion that humans can choose their social structures is a deeply subversive one. The past 40 years of neoliberal rule have been defined by “capitalist realism” (“It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”). The standard-bearer for capitalist realism was Margaret Thatcher, whose maxim, “There is no alternative” was framed as an observation, but was actually a demand: “Stop trying to imagine an alternative.”

https://pluralistic.net/2021/11/08/tina-v-tapas/#its-pronounced-tape-ass

Capitalist realism isn’t just a war on imagination, it’s also a war on history. If we know about the different societies our ancestors built, we will inevitably start to imagine alternatives to the creditor society that we’re stuck in today.

As Orwell put it: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

That’s why history is so contested. When bigots seek to extinguish queerness, they insist that queerness is a recent phenomenon, an aberration that upends thousands of years of straight missionary sex. When Eleanor Janega explains just how kinky the middle ages were, she doesn’t just correct the record, she rebuts the argument:

https://going-medieval.com/2022/07/08/on-medieval-kink-part-2/

Unsurprisingly, the Graeber memorial seminars devote a lot of energy to unearthing suppressed histories. This week in Lyon, France, a group of activists and academics are celebrating Graeber at an event called “Construire des passerelles” (“building bridges”):

https://davidgraeber22.sciencesconf.org/

Yesterday, Michael Hudson opened the event with a keynote called “From Junk Economics to a False View of History — Where Western Civilization Took a Wrong Turn,” which digs into the history of creditor and debtor protection and what it tells us about our current polycrisis:

https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/07/michael-hudson-from-junk-economics-to-a-false-view-of-history-where-western-civilization-took-a-wrong-turn.html

Hudson tells us a history of antiquity that takes a sharp turn when ancient Rome decided to protect creditors over debtors, eliminating the jubilee and creating a hereditary aristocracy that drove Roman civilization into its grave.

Rather than recognizing the failed ideology of Roman civilization, we exalt it, erasing all the long-run, stable, debtor-friendly societies that came before it. The contemporary hypercapitalist ideology that holds that government’s only legitimate roles are protecting property and enforcing contracts are a thinly veiled version of protecting creditors over debtors.

The “contracts” that society upholds are inevitably debt-creating contracts; the “property” that society exalts is inevitably the accumulated rents from debt extraction.

Hudson says that these ideas were well-understood in ancient civilizations — and thoroughly rejected. Successful ancient civilizations rejected the idea that markets could exist separate from politics: markets were an instrument to achieve a goal. Markets were not a system for allocating wealth, they allocated wealth to achieve a purpose.

Ancient societies mistrusted wealth accumulation in the hands of creditors, viewing the rise of creditor wealth as a threat to overall social wellbeing. As Hudson notes, “Anthropologists have found this to be a characteristic of low-income societies in general.”

Hudson takes aim at orthodox histories that say that people “freely” created agricultural landholdings, only to have governments come by and levy taxes upon them. The actual historical record documented by Hudson’s Harvard team shows that the order of operations was reversed: the existence of taxes (and the armies, buffer stocks and dispute resolution frameworks taxes supported) created the landholdings.

Owning a plot of land to support your family was always embedded in society, and was always a trade: you owed the system some labor and material support, the system owed you enough land to live on and a safety net to protect you from bad luck.

Contra orthodox histories, farmers didn’t switch to accumulating wealth in gold, silver and copper spontaneously. Precious metals and coin money were also a government creation, with temples verifying weights and purity. The word “money” comes from “Moneta,” as in Rome’s “Juno Moneta,” in whose temple money was struck.

What made precious metals “precious” was not that they gold didn’t spoil like grain, nor was it that metals had uniform quality, unlike produce. Rather, metals were valuable because you could use them to pay your taxes with them, and they were uniform in quality because the state regulated them.

The neoliberal fairy-tale about the origins of money and civilization isn’t a harmless misunderstanding. Alan Greenspan, an Ayn-Rand-addled fantasist, was committed to the idea that money was a creature of the markets, not governments. He was convinced that “sound money” was whatever the market accepted as “sound money” — so he blithely assumed that the junk paper that created the 2008 crisis was as good as the state money created by the US government (or, indeed, better!).

In Hudson’s telling, Rome broke with history by protecting creditors above debtors, which led to a gradual takeover of society by wealthy families and a hereditary debtor class. Our own society shows the same pathologies, including hereditary debtors:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/19/zombie-debt/#damnation

Remember, “debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” A society that protects creditors over debtors needs to invent all kinds of ways to squeeze blood from stones, as debtors’ debts mount and their ability to service their debts is eroded. Our modern society has turned its digital nervous system into a debt-collection superweapon:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/02/innovation-unlocks-markets/#digital-arm-breakers

Joe Biden is about to hand control of the House (and maybe the Senate) to the Trump Party because he can’t bear to bring himself to favor student debtors and the prospect of a life unshackled from crushing debt over predatory private universities and student debt bondholders:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/05/03/utopia-of-rules/#in-triplicate

In one important sense, it doesn’t matter whether Biden cancels student debt, because “debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid,” and millions of people can’t pay their student debt. America has a hidden, chaotic, cruel and inefficient student debt cancellation system that wipes out debts of otherwise productive people, but only after their lives have been destroyed:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/11/20/sovkitsch/#student-debt

It’s not just students or people with medical debt who face this cruel system of post-destruction default. Our world is full of entire countries whose creditors insist that they must sell off their entire productive capacity, their land and their national treasures to make good on debts — and nevermind that it’s impossible to service debts once all those things have been sold off.

https://pluralistic.net/2021/09/29/jubilance/#debt

This week, Mitch McConnell made headlines when he blamed the shortage of workers for low-waged, precarious, dangerous jobs on the fact that Americans are “flush with cash.”

https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/maddowblog/mitch-mcconnell-think-americans-are-flush-cash-rcna37263

These are words that could have come out of the mouth of a Roman Senator, one who sees the organization of society around creditors and their whims as a feature, not a bug.

McConnell and the creditor-boosting economists who provide him with ideological cover are a powerful tool for understanding how Rome could allow its national priorities to be dictated by a minority who were born owed money by the majority, who were born owing.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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