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Jubilee: Systems of Forgiveness

The technical systems we build have perfect memories. They keep account of everything. The ones are the ones, and the zeros are the zeros. We network the systems together and even account for things across multiple domains. While on the one hand we talk about economies of abundance and prices of many things converging on free—we know the score.

When Jacques Derrida talks about forgiveness, he cuts to the chase. To forgive is to forgive what is unforgivable. It’s an act of transformation, and by definition impossible. Forgiveness without cost isn’t forgiveness. Forgiveness costs everything. A forgiveness that translates the debt from one domain to another isn’t forgiveness. To forgive is to break all the rules of the system.

David Graeber, in discussing his work “5,000 Years of Debt” talks about how morality and monetary debt have always been intertwined.

In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.

We’ve become very sophisticated in creating instruments of debt and even derivatives on those instruments. Our systems of forgiveness, however, have been left behind. Debt and forgiveness of debt historically were linked. Forgiveness allows a system reset, the negative numbers are zeroed out. The moral judgement that comes along with monetary debt is wiped away. What by definition shouldn’t be forgiven is forgiven.

As the economies of the world are gripped by a debt crisis, the call for austerity measures come down from on high. From within the system, there’s only one kind of solution that’s rational. Austerity is the proper solution on both an economic and a moral level. Only moral weakness and foolishness would cause a person or a country to borrow more than they could repay. A good dose of austerity will put them back on the straight and narrow.

Of course, as Graeber points out, there’s a certain rationality for breaking the rules of the system at particular moments in time:

The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.

This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.

As our societies become more rational, secular and technical we become less able to do the impossible, to forgive what is unforgivable. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s not a part of the algorithm. Something like a Jubilee seems like the superstition of a primitive people. In the systems that we’re building, is there a set of events that will cause the system to reset itself? Or do we think we’ve somehow evolved into a system of systems that never needs to be rebooted?

Well shake it up now Sugaree, I’ll meet you at the jubilee
And if that jubilee don’t come maybe I’ll meet you on the run
Just one thing I ask of you, just one thing for me
Please forget you know my name, my darling Sugaree

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