The Rolling Jubilee: a World Historical Event?

I had a very interesting experience about a week ago. While I was preparing a talk, “Jubilee and Nationalist Time,” for a panel at the Midwest MLA conference, held in Cincinnati over the weekend, the history I was recounting changed before me.

I experienced this change, as one does these days, through Twitter.

My talk, posted here, traces the Old Testament concept of the jubilee — a periodic general release of debtors and slaves, and a return of land to its prior owners — into the British eighteenth century, showing, principally, how it lost its economic sense and gained new senses in different contexts. You should read the talk: it’s about 3000 words, and there are precisely three jokes.

But here’s what happened last week that changed this story: Activists affiliated with the Occupy movement, calling themselves “Strike Debt,” have organized something called a “Rolling Jubilee,” in which they are raising money to buy distressed debt from collection agencies, who are willing to sell it at a large discount — to anyone but the debtor him- or herself — and forgiving it. An exciting and interesting project, to be sure: I’ve given them some money, and you should consider doing the same. The website for this group is here.

I mention this because the jubilee has had a number of configurations in the last 3000 years. It has been:

  • An ethnically-distinctive economic/cultural practice of the ancient Hebrews, exercised among themselves and specifically denied to foreigners, to hold the group together, and forestall the accumulated depredations of the market from leading to the decline of the community. It served to make sure that any economic gains made by Jews were at the expense of non-Jews.
  • A celebration performed by the Catholic church beginning in the fourteenth century, in which the Church offered remission of sins to pilgrims who visited certain holy sites in Rome during a designated period. No economic meaning remained, although the Catholic jubilee contributed a certain universalism. In principle, this was available to “pilgrims of all nations.”
  • An anniversary party, with no spiritual or economic content, typically of an event of  nationalist significance, like a royal accession or successful battle.

This history is not exhaustive. It, like all histories, is drawn up for the purposes of a specific project — in this case, my dissertation project. I am aware of at least one other sense in what might be called Black American liberation theology, but don’t know enough about that to comment. I would very much like to know more; any pointers in the comments would be richly appreciated. There are likely others.

That caveat aside, this strictly economic sense of release put forward by the Strike Debt group, neither spiritual nor nationalist, not about policing the boundaries of an in-group and an out-group, is quite possibly a world historical event.

(Also others — Strike Debt is here a synecdoche for this larger group of affiliated scholars and activists. I know David Graeber has been talking about jubilee for awhile. Also notable are activists working for the forgiveness of sovereign debt in developing nations, another interesting project.)

While I believe that this work is of unsurpassed importance, I also fear that pitfalls are all around. There are well-worn conceptual pathways towards which this notion tends, and they can be ugly. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

In which: the Business School Visits My Coworking Space.

I’ve been working very satisfactorily and productively these last few months at a coworking space in downtown Ann Arbor called Workantile. It’s great.

A few days ago, we were visited by a professor and some sort of graduate student from Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. Coworking is a fashionable topic among MBA types, as it’s closely associated with Bay Area startup culture, “innovation,” etc.

But this is Ann Arbor. I’m not the only academic who works here — split pretty evenly between the humanities and the social sciences. And while the people who run the space gamely spoke to the representatives of the business school, a few of the rest of us took it as an opportunity to reflect on differences in research culture between professional schools and the rest of the university. One former archaeologist with a PhD from an anthropology department, wryly asked them if they’d filled out the paperwork to perform research on human subjects. They didn’t know what he was talking about. They are not us.

My reflection was to note my own strange transformation in the eyes of these scholars of work as soon as I crossed State Street, the main dividing line between UM’s central campus and downtown Ann Arbor. Were I a graduate student at Michigan, doing precisely the same work over in Angell Hall or the Grad Library, not only would I not have cheap access to good coffee, I would also not be doing interesting work in the eyes of the business school. God knows the academy isn’t a model they would have any interest in whatsoever.

Yes, there are all manner of project managers and software engineers clicking away on laptops, but you’ll occasionally find a stack of blue books on a desk, too. Lawyers are doing Westlaw searches, but I’m bouncing packets through UC’s VPN to search ECCO and Project Muse, tracking down citations. Perhaps one lesson here, which I feel may not be getting picked up, is about how laptop computers have create an undifferentiated aesthetic of ‘work.’ Coworking is about the materiality of ‘immaterial’ labor, in which we recognize that the alleged ‘immateriality’ of this labor would be better named its ‘plasticity.’

But man, that exposed brick.