Using Debt to Crush Democracy: How Financiers Are Waging Warfare Against Nations
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The fact that the main Near Eastern creditors were the palace, temples and their collectors made it politically easy to cancel the debts. It always is easy to annul debts owed to oneself. Even Roman emperors burned the tax records to prevent a crisis. But it was much harder to cancel debts owed to private creditors as the practice of charging interest spread westward to Mediterranean chiefdoms after about 750 BC. Instead of enabling families to bridge gaps between income and outgo, debt became the major lever of land expropriation, polarizing communities between creditor oligarchies and indebted clients. In Judah, the prophet Isaiah (5:8-9) decried foreclosing creditors who “add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”
Creditor power and stable growth rarely have gone together. Most personal debts in this classical period were the product of small amounts of money lent to individuals living on the edge of subsistence and who could not make ends meet. Forfeiture of land and assets – and personal liberty – forced debtors into bondage that became irreversible. By the 7th century BC, “tyrants” (popular leaders) emerged to overthrow the aristocracies in Corinth and other wealthy Greek cities, gaining support by canceling the debts. In a less tyrannical manner, Solon founded the Athenian democracy in 594 BC by banning debt bondage.
But oligarchies re-emerged and called in Rome when Sparta’s kings Agis, Cleomenes and their successor Nabis sought to cancel debts late in the third century BC. They were killed and their supporters driven out. It has been a political constant of history since antiquity that creditor interests opposed both popular democracy and royal power able to limit the financial conquest of society – a conquest aimed at attaching interest-bearing debt claims for payment on as much of the economic surplus as possible.
When the Gracchi brothers and their followers tried to reform the credit laws in 133 BC, the dominant Senatorial class acted with violence, killing them and inaugurating a century of Social War, resolved by the ascension of Augustus as emperor in 29 BC.
Rome’s creditor oligarchy wins the Social War, enserfs the population and brings on a Dark Age
Matters were more bloody abroad. Aristotle did not mention empire building as part of his political schema, but foreign conquest always has been a major factor in imposing debts, and war debts have been the major cause of public debt in modern times. Antiquity’s harshest debt levy was by Rome, whose creditors spread out to plague Asia Minor, its most prosperous province. The rule of law all but disappeared when the publican creditor “knights” arrived. Mithridates of Pontus led three popular revolts, and local populations in Ephesus and other cities rose up and killed a reported 80,000 Romans in 88 BC. The Roman army retaliated, and Sulla imposed war tribute of 20,000 talents in 84 BC. Charges for back interest multiplied this sum six-fold by 70 BC.
Among Rome’s leading historians, Livy, Plutarch and Diodorus blamed the fall of the Republic on creditor intransigence in waging the century-long Social War marked by political murder from 133 to 29 BC. Populist leaders sought to gain a following by advocating debt cancellations (e.g., the Catiline conspiracy in 63-62 BC). They were killed. By the second century AD about a quarter of the population was reduced to bondage. By the fifth century Rome’s economy collapsed, stripped of money. Subsistence life reverted to the countryside as a Dark Age descended.
Creditors find a legalistic reason to support parliamentary democracy
When banking recovered after the Crusades looted Byzantium and infused silver and gold to review Western European commerce, Christian opposition to charging interest was overcome by the combination of prestigious lenders (the Knights Templars and Hospitallers providing credit during the Crusades) and their major clients – kings, at first to pay the Church and increasingly to wage war. But royal debts went bad when kings died. The Bardi and Peruzzi went bankrupt in 1345 when Edward III repudiated his war debts. Banking families lost more on loans to the Habsburg and Bourbon despots on the thrones of Spain, Austria and France.
Matters changed with the Dutch democracy, seeking to win and secure its liberty from Habsburg Spain. The fact that their parliament was to contract permanent public debts on behalf of the state enabled the Low Countries to raise loans to employ mercenaries in an epoch when money and credit were the sinews of war. Access to credit “was accordingly their most powerful weapon in the struggle for their freedom,” notes Ehrenberg: “Anyone who gave credit to a prince knew that the repayment of the debt depended only on his debtor’s capacity and will to pay. The case was very different for the cities, which had power as overlords, but were also corporations, associations of individuals held in common bond. According to the generally accepted law each individual burgher was liable for the debts of the city both with his person and his property.”