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.

2 thoughts on “The Rolling Jubilee: a World Historical Event?

  1. That’s a good question, Thomas. In short, I’d say that what I’d consider possible “ugly ends” are the kinds of nationalism and tribalism that have often adhered to jubilees in the past. I’m hopeful that this version can see past those things, and I wanted to add my two cents to this conversation in order to make sure people were thinking about these issues.

    In that sense, then, the degree which the Rolling Jubilee *is,* in fact, a world-historical event is precisely the degree to which it escapes the In-group/Out-group distinctions that have plagued the concept since the Old Testament.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *