On 1 July this year, Christ the Redeemer – standing atop Corcovado mountain, his soapstone arms spanning the Rio sky – was lit up to commemorate the victims of coronavirus. The statue has long been a symbol of Christ’s redemption of the world from sin. Yet in his book ‘…And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year’, Michael Hudson argues that Christ’s redemption began not as spiritual forgiveness, but as debt forgiveness – that the coming of the year of our Lord was not a reference to the return of God, but to the age-old practice of debt cancellation. As the economic effects of the pandemic deepen, it is time to return to that practice.
Debt in the time of coronavirus.
One of the defining characteristics of the economic turmoil created by the pandemic has been soaring levels of private debt, which has increased by around £6.1bn since March. Hundreds of thousands of renters have been pushed into debt to their landlords by the pandemic, and with the temporary ban on evictions having recently lifted, many of these will be pushed on to the streets. Others who have not fallen into arrears, but have instead been eating into their savings in order to keep up with rent payments, will be unable to sustain this long-term, especially with another recession imminent.
Earlier in the pandemic, many people dared to hope that the British government would follow the many other European nations that have given renters – sometimes all borrowers – a repayment holiday. Yet the Conservatives have been predictably silent on rent debt, while Labour has meekly called for renters to have more time to pay. Meanwhile, the myth of things being better north of the border was swiftly dispelled in May when the Tories and SNP voted down a proposal to freeze rent repayments for two years and prevent arrears-related evictions.
Ironically, indebtedness is catastrophic for public health. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute estimates that in England alone, 100,000 people in debt attempt suicide each year. Combined with the protracted effects of the pandemic – social isolation, unemployment – it is clear that failure to act on the debt will result in far more than an economic downturn.
Despite the potentially life-threatening consequences of inaction, the government seems unable to even consider writing off the debt. The problem is not simply that a third of Tory MPs are landlords, nor that throughout British history, there has not been a single instance of the rich forgiving the debts of the poor en masse. No, the problem is much deeper: the common-sense view that debtors have a moral obligation to pay up.
The criminalisation of debt.
Debt has always been central to moral thought. When in Plato’s ‘Republic’, Socrates asks, “What is justice?”, Cephalus responds that justice is paying one’s debts. In the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, Aristotle uses debt to describe the relationships between friends and family, arguing that children are born with an unpayable debt to their parents. Eastern philosophers, use the idea of karmic debt to understand morality. Even in modern philosophy, debt (or at least the language of it) is key. Particularists, those who believe that there are no general rules governing morality, talk of the right action being the one you have most reason to do on balance, a metaphor which has its origin in the literal weighing of debt repayments.
In Europe, until the reintroduction of Roman Law in the Late Middle Ages, debt was much more literally connected to morality. In a widespread practice known as Wergild – literally a “man-price” in Middle English – people believed to have committed a crime had to pay reparations to the victim, their family, sometimes even the monarch. Payments depended on the severity of the crime and the social standing of the victim. These payments would often put the perpetrator into debt.
The debts Britons hold today are not incurred through criminality, but instead mostly for housing, cars and education. Yet we continue to see debtors as being morally culpable for their indebtedness, the result of fecklessness, spendthrift behaviour, and non-payment as irresponsible at best, dishonest at worst.
The high road or the low.
Today, in light of the sheer number of renters struggling to pay, landlords and renters have been asked by the government to negotiate on repayments. These negotiations are entirely at the discretion of the landlord, and may therefore be better described as a plea by one party for mercy from the other. Nevertheless, around half of tenants’ pleas have been successful. Yet as millions become dependent on universal credit payments too small to cover their rental and living expenses, many of the remaining half refused a rent reduction are sinking into arrears. The result should be obvious: debts that can’t be paid won’t be.
The government now has two choices. The first is to insist that debts are repaid, impoverishing millions. We know what happens when we choose this course: at the height of the 2008 recession, one family every seven minutes lost their home. When Cephalus claimed that justice is about paying back your debts, Socrates responded by asking whether we should return a borrowed axe to a madman; in other words, whether we are obligated to pay back our debts if doing so will have horrific consequences for the debtor.
The second, seemingly impossible option, is to forgive debts, and force banks and landlords to accept smaller returns on their investments. What would this look like? Despite a lack of recent examples, there is a long history of debt forgiveness.
Cancel the debt.
Since Bronze Age Mesopotamia, we’ve known that debts tend to grow faster than the ability to repay them. Debts grow at compound interest, doubling every few years, meaning that they grow exponentially and that the economy cannot keep pace with them. High levels of debt also tend to slow the growth rate of the economy, meaning debt grows fastest when people are least able to pay. When the debts get too large, financial collapse ensues, as happened in 2008. Debt feeds on economic growth, and once it is large enough, it begins to eat into the economy. It is a parasite that hollows out its host.
Of course, debt also stratifies society. As it grows, wealth is transferred upwards – enabling creditors to lend even more and concentrate further wealth in their hands. If a debtor defaults, creditors may seize an even larger share of their wealth through repossession.
The Mesopotamians saw the inability of debtors to pay not as a problem of individual debtors, but as a systemic problem inherent in the practice of lending at interest. For thousands of years, they periodically cancelled non-commercial debts such as mortgages and rent arrears, freeing people trapped in debt bondage. Although this was not a permanent fix – it had to be repeated regularly – it did prevent large sections of the population being thrust into poverty and debt crises from seriously disrupting economic life.
The Torah references a similar practice. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah advocated debt cancellation every 49 years in what became known as the jubilee year; the late David Graeber advocates it in his book ‘Debt’. By the time the Romans conquered the Holy Lands in 63BCE, debt jubilees had been abandoned. Hudson argues that when Jesus came to proclaim the year of our Lord, he was calling for a return of the jubilee year; only later was this proclamation spiritualised into the forgiveness of sin. This ambiguity is reflected in the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the books of Matthew and Luke. Both include the line “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet while Luke continues “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” in Matthew the line is “and forgive us our debts, as we too have forgiven our debtors.”
This kind of radical debt forgiveness only seems so in a society where we view the paying of debt as a moral absolute, in which creditors’ claims are privileged over debtors’ wellbeing. History has proven that releasing people from unpayable debts creates economic and social stability, and that failing to do so leads to 2008. The latter is not an economic necessity: it is pure ideology.
Now is not time to repeat old mistakes, but to propose bold new – or rather, ancient – ideas. It is time to do what Jesus would, and forgive the debt.
Francis Brewer is a writer, activist and tutor living in Glasgow.