The Inherent Right to Rebel

The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf

J A Scott

MW Books (1988)

Book Review

Babeuf’s speech available free on line at: Defense Speech

Babeuf was a whistleblower under Louis XVI, who in 1782 exposed corruption in the tax system imposed by the French aristocracy. He spent the years immediately preceding the French revolution (1789) either in hiding or in jail. On learning the Bastille had fallen, he joined the revolutionary struggle. In addition to launching a newspaper, he circulated numerous pamphlets and petitions calling for the abolition of private property and an end to the private expropriation of the commons and the division of society into exploited and exploiting classes.

In September 1792, he was elected to the revolutionary government, only to be arrested in 1795 by the counter-revolutionary forces that overthrew Robespierre. He was charged and found guilty of advocating for the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793.

The book is the verbatim defense Babeuf presented to the court that sentenced him to death. He cites the writings of Plato, Sir Thomas Moore, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers to argue that human beings have a natural right to rebel against political and economic injustice and that violence, poverty and war all have their roots in the concept of private property.

He further argues that the natural function of society and social institutions is to protect the weak against the tyranny of the strong (whereas in reality they do the opposite). He contends that the 1789 revolution wasn’t complete because it allowed the wealth to continue to control all social power and government. He also (correctly) claimed that the election adopting the 1795 constitution was rigged and thus failed to represent the true will of the people.

For me the significance of Babeuf’s courtroom oration (which predated Marx by more than 60 years) was the surprising realization that Marx wasn’t the first to argue against the argue against the damage wealth inequality wreaks on society. It’s easy to forget that Karl Marx was but one of a long line of thinkers (which includes Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith) who advocated against class exploitation.

The Hidden History of Money, Debt and Organized Religion

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.

* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.




Telling the Truth About Debt, Austerity and Taxation


The Joy of Tax: How a Fair Tax System Can Create a Better Society

by Richard Murphy

Corgi Books (2015)

Book Review

Although the topic is economics, I personally guarantee this product to be totally painless. Murphy describes economics in ordinary comprehensible language – unlike mainstream economists who treat economics like a religion that can only be understood by high priests – and who speak and write in obscure language so you can never be sure if they’re telling the truth or not.

In The Joy of Tax, UK Tax Justice Network co-founder Richard Murphy offers a radically pioneering approach to tax and fiscal policy.  Murphy is one of the first economists to link tax policy to the 400- year-old reality that nearly all money is created by private banks out of thin air.

For political reasons, most economists try to conceal that private bank loans, i.e. debt, are the source of nearly all money in circulation. According to Murphy, the recent admission by the Bank of England (Quarterly Bulletin April 2014) about the true source of our money makes it possible to debunk a number of myths perpetuated by mainstream politicians and economists. Some examples: that investment is only possible when there are sufficient savings in the economy, that government debt is bad and that austerity, balanced budgets and government surpluses are good.

A point Murphy emphasizes repeatedly is that government also has the ability to create money out of thin air. Moreover it has regularly exercised that right to stimulate a stagnant economy. In fact, because all money is created as debt, it’s essential for government to “create” money (by spending it into the economy) whenever private banks fail to create sufficient credit. If this didn’t happen, severe economic recession results.

In Murphy’s view, the primary purpose of taxation is to reclaim the money government creates to keep it from over-inflating the economy. He claims the conservative elites who rabbit on about repaying government debt are really making the case that only private banks should have the right to create money. Aside from making them enormously rich, this makes no sense. Private banks are incapable of acting in the public interest – by law they can only act in the interest of their shareholders.

Citing Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, Murphy maintains a rational tax system can deliver other important goals, such as reducing inequality, recovering externalized costs (e.g.  pollution, toxic waste) imposed by corporations and promoting economically and ecologically sustainable growth.

For the current tax system to accomplish these goals, it would need to be far less regressive. At present most of the tax burden falls on middle and low income taxpayers. According to Murphy, the global economy will continue to stagnate until the wealthy shoulder their fair share of tax.

To make our current tax system fairer, Murphy proposes to introduce a number of “progressive” taxes, including a financial transaction tax, a wealth tax, a carbon/pollution tax, a land value tax to fund local government and a special tax on corporations that fail to re-invest their profits. He also proposes to do away with the current welfare bureaucracy by introducing an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI).

Although most of these tax reform proposals are specific for the UK, they would clearly produce similar benefits for the US and other post-industrial economies.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Behavioral Economics

Mind Over Money

PBS Nova (2010)

Film Review

Mind Over Money is an intriguing Nova documentary about the new field of behavioral economics. At present, banks and governments use complex mathematical models in making decisions about lending, investment, taxation and government borrowing. These models are based on the premise Adam Smith put forward in Wealth of Nations that the “rational self-interest” of groups of individuals causes economic markets to be perfectly self-regulating without government regulation or control.

While the economic “rationalists” who subscribe to this belief acknowledge that not everyone makes totally rational decisions about money, they claim enough do to enable bankers, governments and economists to 1) predict the behavior of markets mathematically and 2) guarantee the overall stability of markets without government interference.

In contrast, behavioral economists argue that most decisions around money are based on emotional and unconscious factors. They further argue that without government regulation, waves of irrationally sweep through the stock market and mercantile exchange (where commodities are traded), causing destructive speculative bubbles and crashes as they did in in 1929 and 2008.

John Maynard Keynes was the first economist (during the Great Depression) to raise concerns that destructive booms and busts result from irrational investing behavior. Because he could offer no clear explanation why this was happening, his views were largely dismissed.

Economist Robert Shiller echoed Keynes concerns in his 2005 book Irrational Exuberance, in which he predicted the 2008 global economic crash.

Thanks to a pressing need to understand the 2008 downturn (and prevent another one), social psychology research into spending and investing behavior is enjoying its own boom. The documentary describes a number of fascinating experiments that validate Keynes’s original claim that these decisions are largely controlled by emotional and unconscious factors.

For my own part, I question why we need to produce absolutely scientific certainty for something that’s blatantly obvious. In contrast to economists, Wall Street traders all readily agree that Wall Street volatility is driven by waves of emotion. It strikes me that Wall Street economists refuse to accept the behavioral basis of market activity because they have a vested interest in continuing the high priesthood of complex mathematical models.

The film implies that more market regulation is needed to prevent this type of market volatility. I disagree. In my mind, the best way to strip Wall Street of this vested interest is to strip banks of the power to create money out of thin air and restore money creation to public control (as Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln attempted to do.) See An IMF Proposal to Ban Banks from Creating Money


The Innate Sloth and Indolence of the Working Class


The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation

By Michael Perelman
Duke University Press (2000)

Download Free PDF

The Invention of Capitalism is about the origin of an economic concept known as “primitive accumulation.” Marx defined primitive accumulation as the process by which precapitalist modes of production, such as feudalism and chattel slavery, are transformed into the capitalist mode of production. Using the term somewhat differently, Perelman describes it as the brutal process by which government denies peasants the means of subsistence to force them into wage labor.

Tracing the rise of capitalism in the 18th and 19th century, the Invention of Capitalism also studies the origin of the concept in the work of classical economists, such as Adam Smith, Ricardo and Malthus.

Forcing Workers to Accept Wage Labor

Nearly all the 18th century economists and social philosophers seem to agree that workers never voluntarily accept wage labor so long they have alternative means of providing for themselves. They all acknowledge, either directly or indirectly, that it’s natural for human beings to prefer “self-provisioning,” in which they own or rent a piece of land to produce their own food, clothing, fuel and other necessities. In addition to allowing them more control over their work, there is more leisure time associated with this lifestyle, as well as strong community ties that disappear with wage labor. Unless brutal force must be applied to strip people of the ability to provide for themselves, they never voluntarily agree to wage labor.

In Britain, “primitive accumulation” was largely accomplished through the Enclosure Acts, the Poor Laws and the Game Laws. The Enclosure Acts drove peasants off large tracts of land they had farmed communally for thousands of years; the Poor Laws forced disposed peasants into poorhouses and workhouses; and the Game Acts denied them the right to hunt (ie poach) or gather berries, firewood etc on unoccupied land.

Capitalism developed more slowly in Scotland, France, Italy, Spain and the British colonies, where the ruling elite was less savage in stripping the peasantry of access to land. These regions enjoyed a long transition in which factory workers performed wage labor and self-provisioning simultaneously, by raising crops and chickens and engaging in spinning and other crafts in their leisure time.

The Innate Sloth and Indolence of Workers

As Perelman quite ably demonstrates, most classical economists gloss over the brutal force required to establish a successful capitalist economic system. A few of the lesser known political economists (Perelman focuses in Sir James Steuart, one of Adam Smith’s rivals) are honest about need for laws that prevent workers from self-provisioning. They blame the need for such laws on an innate tendency towards “sloth and indolence” in workers and peasants (and indigenous peoples).

Perelman devotes special attention to the Scottish economist Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, as well as the political economists and social philosophers who influenced Smith’s work. He also explores attitudes toward primitive accumulation in the work of Marx, Benjamin Franklin, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. The forceful primitive accumulation that industrialized the Soviet Union and Communist China occurred much more rapidly than in Western Europe or North America. This makes the Soviet and Chinese process appear much more savage. However a close look at British history suggests they were far more brutal, especially in Ireland and the colonies, than either the Chinese or Soviets.

Yields Drop Under Commercial Agriculture

The part of the book I found most interesting concerns the drop in crop yields that occurred with the shift from labor intensive “spade labor” to commercial agriculture employing horse driven plows and eventually farm machinery. This corresponds closely with modern research showing that plowing reduces yields by destroying soil fertility. Then, as now, it’s clear that the goal of commercial agriculture isn’t to produce more food but to extract more profit from other people’s work.

A Return to Self-Provisioning

Perelman’s research seems especially significant in the face of growing unemployment and part time and casual labor. A growing number of unemployed and part time workers use their enforced leisure time to plant veggie gardens, collect rainwater, preserve their own food and make their own clothes and cleaning and beauty products. In other words, the cycle of primitive accumulation is being reversed, as more and more people leave formal employment and return to self-provisioning.



Debt: the First 5,000 Years

by David Graeber

Book Review

The primary purpose of Debt: the First 5,000 Years is to correct the historical record concerning the origin of barter, coinage and credit. Incredibly well researched, anthropologist David Graeber’s book is a fascinating read. I found it extremely helpful in gaining some understanding of modern problems with debt and perpetual war. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the 2,600 year old link between war, debt and money creation, as well as the role of violent insurrection in shaping history. Ruling elites are terrified of insurrection. Throughout history, this fear has driven most major reforms.

Debunking Adam Smith

The conventional wisdom, which originates from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, is that money (i.e. coins) originated out of barter relationships, and that paper money and credit replaced coins when trade became too large and complex to be conducted with coins. As Graeber ably demonstrates, Smith had it backwards. Not only was barter virtually non-existent in prehistoric societies, but coinage itself was an extremely late development. Virtual credit preceded coinage (and barter) by thousands of years in all early civilizations. What’s more, these complex credit-debt arrangements played a vital role in the development of traditional institutions, such as slavery, patriarchy, urbanization and organized religion.

The Myth of Barter

People didn’t barter in early hunter gatherer and agrarian societies because they didn’t need to. Well into the Middle Ages, basic needs were met by family and community mutual obligation networks. There was an expectation extended family, neighbors would provide what you couldn’t provide for yourself.

There was a vital need for credit, however, with the development of farms large enough to feed the entire community. According to archeological evidence, credit first developed around 5,000 years ago when farmers borrowed seed and farm implements from wealthy merchants and repaid the debt with a share of the harvest. When the harvest failed, they repaid it in sheep, goats and furniture. When that was gone, they sold their children and eventually themselves into slavery.

This scheme was difficult to enforce, as many indebted farmers either walked away from their land or launched violent insurgencies. In was for this reason that both Sumeria and early Chinese civilizations launched formal debt forgiveness schemes, in which people regained their lands and debt slaves were free to return to their lands.*

The first money (in the form of precious metals, shells or other tokens) was used to pay the bride price the groom paid the bride’s family, the blood debt incurred when someone was murdered and to buy someone out of slavery.

The Origin of Patriarchy

In the earliest Sumerian texts (3000-2500 BC), women appear as doctors, merchants, scribes and public officials and are free to participate in all aspects of public life. This changes over the next 1000 years, with women becoming closeted to protect the honor of their fathers and husbands. According to Graeber, this pressing need to protect a woman’s reputation arose from a reaction by agrarian peoples (such as the early Israelites) to urbanization and the prostitution that resulted from it. The rise of cities in Sumeria and Babylon was accompanied by the rise of numerous informal occupations – including prostitution – practiced by men and women who had fled slavery. Patriarchy arose simultaneously in ancient China for similar reasons.

War, Debt and Money

Coinage (gold, silver and bronze coins) arose simultaneously between 600 BC and 800 AD (aka the Axial Period) in Greece, Rome, the great plains of northern China and the Ganges Valley for precisely the same reason: it was impossible to finance war with local systems of credit.

In all three civilizations, the first coins were used to pay professional soldiers (aka mercenaries). This would lead to the first market economies, as soldiers spent their coins in local communities, as well as concepts of profit and debt interest. In fact, a vicious cycle was established whereby rulers tried to solve their debt problems through expansionist wars to acquire more land, resources and slaves. In every case, this strategy backfired and the wars only increased their indebtedness.

The appearance of coins and market economies also led to a backlash against materialism and preoccupation with money. All the world’s major philosophic tendencies (Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, prophetic Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Jainism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam) arose during the Axial Period

This period also saw the rise of the first peace movements when early philosophers (eg Socrates and Plato) made common cause with rebels who opposed the violence of war and existing power relationships. According to Graeber these movements were remarkably successful in reducing the brutality and frequency of war. By 600 AD, slavery itself was virtually non-existent.

The Rise and Fall of Credit Economies

Following the fall of Rome, populations fled the cities and lived in smaller communities that reverted to credit economies. Gold and silver were used for temples and cathedrals, and only rich people had access to coins. All the major religions prohibited usury.

Money lending and banking arose to fund the Crusades, with the Knights Templar replacing Jewish moneylenders. After their persecution, torture and extermination by Phillip IV (due to the enormous debt he owed them), the latter were replaced by Venetian and Genoan bankers. The Italian bankers used municipal and government debt bonds as the chief instrument of exchange.

Around 1450, gold and silver bullion and coin (much of it from the New World) were re-introduced to finance vast empires and predatory warfare. This development was accompanied by the return of usury and debt slavery.

The Birth of Capitalism

Graeber defines capitalism as a gigantic credit/debt apparatus pumping maximum labor out of human beings to produce an ever expanding quantity of material goods. He dates its origin to around 1700 (six years after the Bank of England issued the first paper banknotes). Police, prisons and state sanctioned slavery were essential tools in achieving the phenomenal productivity needed to finance political systems based on continual war.

*”Every seventh year you shall make a cancellation. The cancellation shall be as follows: every creditor is to release the debt he has owing to him by his neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). Every 49 years came the Jubilee, when all family land was to be returned to its original owners, and even family members who had been sold as slaves set free (Leviticus 25:9).

Reclaiming Adam Smith

wealth of nations

Contrary to conservative claims, Adam Smith was a liberal who argued for government intervention to ensure economic growth and “general prosperity.” I find it intriguing that he attributes Britain’s global economic dominance to “division of labor” and a superior agricultural system. Despite an entire chapter in Book I on the origin of money, he makes no mention of the role of English banks in creating money (which started in 1666), which kick started the industrial revolution. 

The Wealth of Nations

by Adam Smith

Abridged Version by Laurence Dickey, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Hackett Publishing 1993)

Book Review

The Wealth of Nations consists of five books (written between 1767-1784). Adam Smith’s work is cited extensively by neoliberals and neoconservatives as justification for ending government regulation of corporations . Free marketeers argue that regulation negatively impacts the totally unobstructed free market Adam Smith allegedly advocates.

I think it’s high time for liberals, progressives and left libertarians to reclaim Adam Smith as one of our own. Smith self-identifies as a liberal – one of the first in Europe. He also frequently advocates for what he calls “progressive” economics, i.e. government intervention to ensure that rich people invest their profits in increasing productive labor, rather than corruption and vice.

The 1993 Edition

Smith’s writing tends to be quite repetitive, as large sections of the later books predate the earlier ones. In his abridged version, Dickey merely summarizes material Smith has introduced in earlier sections. There is also a generous preface, as well as appendices, that position Smith among the various writers of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. In this way Dickey shows that, to a large extent, the Wealth of Nations is a consolidation of widely held views on basic economic principles.

The overall intent of the Wealth of Nations is 1) to make general observations about the economic and social changes that underlay the transformation from feudalism to modern industrial society and 2) to lay out basic macroeconomic principles that Smith believes are essential for a prosperous, politically stable nation which provides an adequate standard of living for its workforce. The latter is extremely important to Smith, both as a principle of social justice and to prevent social unrest.

Contrary to claims made by free market conservatives, nowhere does The Wealth of Nations make the case for a totally unregulated free market economy. Quite the contrary, Book V Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth makes a strong argument that government intervention is essential in free markets to ensure economic growth and general prosperity.

Book I (Of the Causes of Improvement in the Productive Powers of Labour)

Book I describes the historical development of international trade and the origin of money. It also lays out Smith’s belief that “division of labor” – in which individual farmers stopped making their own plows, dwellings, shoes, clothes, etc. and organized into specialized trades to provide these services – was the fundamental socio-economic change that made modern economic development and western-style democracy possible.

A notable omission here is Smith’s failure to mention the role private banks assumed in issuing money after the 1666 Free Coinage Act. Carroll Quigley (see The Real Vampires: an Insider’s View of Banks ) argues that Britain’s control over international finance (not British agriculture and “division of labor”) was responsible for Britain’s lengthy dominance over world commerce and trade. I suspect that Smith, like many modern day politicians, had no idea that private banks were creating the money supply out of thin air.

Book I also makes the case that daily “subsistence” (i.e. wages) should be proportioned to the cost of daily necessities and that slavery is uneconomical:

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such as share of their own labour as to be themselves totally well fed, clothed and lodged.”

Book II (Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock)

Book II lays out Smith’s view that capital accumulation (the reinvestment of profits to employ more workers) further advances divisions and subdivisions of labor to improve the “productive power of labor” and the wealth of society. Here Smith emphasizes the importance of spreading wealth to wider and wider circles of people to keep employment constant and prevent social disorder.

Book II also emphasizes what Smith calls “frugality” or the “mediocrity-of-money” as being essential to this capitalization. He also calls for limited government intervention (which Book V elaborates on) to ensure “doux-commerce.” This he defines as an economy based on “frugality,” in which rich people invest their profits in increasing productive labor, rather than luxuries, corruption and vice, which contribute nothing to a society’s economic well being.

Neoliberals often make Smith out as an advocate of laissez-faire economics, in which economic imbalances and social injustice is addressed by the “invisible hand” of competitive market forces. It was actually one of Smith’s contemporaries J. Harris who made this argument.

Book III (Of the Different Progress of Opulence in Different Nations)

Book III elaborates on Smith’s ideas about the accumulation of capital and “frugality,” as well as describing the rise of cities and mercantilism, which in Smith’s view negatively impacts investment in agriculture. Using numerous historical examples, he argues that the inability of a country or empire to produce their own food (and subsequent reliance on food imports) always results in their downfall.

Book IV (Of Systems of Political Oeconomy)

Book IV is a frontal attack on mercantilism, which Smith despises. “Monopoly,” according to Smith, “is the sole engine of the mercantile system.”

Smith, who makes the strong argument that money has no intrinsic value of its own, blames mercantilism on an overemphasis on accumulating gold and silver reserves (money), at the expense of genuine productive capacity and overall economic wealth. He’s highly critical of European nations for being obsessed with a positive balance of trade (to build up their gold and silver reserves). He’s also critical of the wrongheaded way they go about it, through the granting of monopoly rights and protective tariffs, and quotas, which always negatively impact domestic production.

This book also outlines Smith’s views on government intervention. According to Smith, a sovereign (government) has three duties:

  1. To protect society from violence or invasion
  2. To protect, as far as possible, every member of society from injustice or oppression from every other member of society). Smith calls for direct government intervention in “facilitating” investment in agriculture.
  3. To maintain certain public works and institutions “which can never be for [the benefit of] certain individuals or groups of individuals.”

Book V (Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth)

Book V – elaborates on specific interventions Smith would allow government to make “in relations between the rich and poor.” He argues for a government role in ensuring that educational institutions provide moral up-lift (i.e. a “culture of frugality”) to ensure the continuing investment necessary to create jobs.

Here he also delves at length into the effect of military spending on economic wealth. He argues that military spending must be strictly limited and never paid for by borrowing. He predicts that indebtedness for military spending will eventually cause the economic ruin of all European countries.