November 14, 2012

The call for a “Biblical-style Jubilee”


This Thursday, Strike Debt, the group that formed out of Occupy Wall Street will host a sold-out music and comedy event they are calling “The People’s Bailout” as part of their Rolling Jubilee, a fundraising drive to buy the anonymous citizens’ debt that has been bundled together on the financial market in order to forgive it.

As of Tuesday evening, they had raised enough money to abolish more than 2.5 million dollars worth of debt.

David Rees, author of How to Sharpen Pencils will moderate the event, and wrote this explaining the plans to abolish debt on his tumblr:

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

But why is this “awesome game” a being called a Jubilee? For that question, it seems best to turn to David Graeber’s book on the history of debt (coming soon in paperback). He explains the biblical Law of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, which was:

a law that stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled “in the Sabbath year” (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.

“Freedom,” in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the Jewish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation from bondage in Egypt was God’s first, paradigmatic act of redemption … In this light, the adoption of the term by Christians is hardly surprising. Redemption was a release from one’s burden of sin and guilt, and the end of history would be that moment when all slates are wiped clean and all debts finally lifted when a great blast from angelic trumpets will announce the final Jubilee.

The Rolling Jubilee website explains more in its FAQ section, and cites a contemporary example of a Jubilee in Iceland in the answer to the question “What is a Jubilee?”:

Jubilee comes from many faith traditions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A jubilee is an event in which all debts are cancelled and all those in bondage are set free. It worked in Biblical times and it can still work today. For example, a kind of jubilee happened in Iceland after the 2008 economic crisis: instead of bailing out their banks, Iceland canceled a percentage of mortgage debt. What these examples show is that debts are just a promise which can—and should—be renegotiated or cancelled when the circumstances warrant. Strike Debt believes that now is the time for a jubilee for the 99%.

But back to Graeber. On the last two pages in Debt, he makes his case for the contemporary “Biblical-style Jubilee” that Strike Debt has launched this week:

In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with one. It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.