THE JUBILEE: THE BIBLICAL PLAN
A. Introduction: The Biblical Economic Plan vs. Socialism
It is a common belief that socialism is rooted in the Bible; but this is not the case. The Bible is certainly full of social protest and animosity to the social order which enables the rich to live in comfort through the suffering of the poor. But socialism is not only a protest: socialism is a concrete plan to solve the problem of social inequality - and this plan is of a kind decidedly not contemplated by the Bible. On the other hand, the Bible does contain a concrete plan for social revolution (or rather, the blueprint for such a plan); but the Biblical plan is not only different from socialism, but is based on an idea which is diametrically opposite to it. The Biblical remedy for social ills is called "the jubilee year"; it is discussed in Chapter 25 of Leviticus, the Third Book of Moses. Its basic difference with respect to socialism is the difference between a preventive and a curative method.
Socialism is an attempt to prevent social ills: it is a plan for a social order which by its very existence will eliminate inequality in capital ownership once and for all. Once the socialist order is established, the social problem is supposed to disappear. Humanity would be organized so that no individual would be able to concentrate property ownership. In such a social order it would be no more possible to accumulate wealth than it is to accumulate air. This does not necessarily mean that the State would provide equal pay to a professor and to a woodcutter, be it only because intellectual work requires certain conditions of quiet and comfort which are not essential for a woodcutter. Salary differentiation (as in the Soviet Union) may be a permanent feature of a socialist order, and not just a temporary expedient. Moreover, some pursuits which demand extraordinary talent may command extraordinary remuneration: a best-seller may sell a million copies, and its author may become wealthy; likewise, a gifted pianist who makes a concert tour around half the world may become wealthy... but these are trifles. The social problem does not originate because someone was lucky to find a large pearl in the sea; the problem starts when he exchanges that pearl for a large estate or factory, which enables him to buy the labor of others cheaply and sell its products dear. Socialism eliminates this problem by expropriating the means of mass production from private ownership once and for all.
The Biblical plan has nothing in common with this prophylactic scheme, which prevents from the beginning any possibility of social inequality, exploitation, and economic competition. The Bible seeks to preserve economic liberty, but to reform it by certain limitations and antidotes. Some of the Biblical limitations to exploitation and inequality (the least far-reaching ones) are well known:
(i) The main limitation is the Sabbath: "but the seventh day is Sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gate" [Exodus 20,10].
(ii) Another limitation is the obligation to leave a portion of the harvest for the poor: "and when ye reap the harvest of thy land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest... thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger" (Leviticus 19,9).
(iii) The final limitation is the tithe, which is "holy unto the Lord".
These are the seeds from which, over time, grew the entire complex present system of social protection, welfare and progressive taxing of the wealthy in favor of the poor. To be sure, social welfare has nothing to do with socialism, although many of its provisions have been legislated under the direct influence of socialist parties. Such provisions are only reforms of economic liberalism; they leave the principle of private enterprise intact.
However, the most far-reaching and revolutionary Biblical reform of the private-enterprise system is comparatively little known: the jubilee.
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B. The Jubilee Principle
Let us recall the Biblical formulation of the jubilee principle: "and thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee nine and forty years. Then shalt thou cause the horn of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the horn sound throughout your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family" [Leviticus 25, 810]". If a person was obliged to sell his land to pay off a debt, and could not manage to regain possession of it - in the jubilee year his land would be restituted free of charge. The same goes for a house, (except for a dwelling house in a walled city). Likewise, "if thy brother... be impoverished, and be sold to thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve thee as a slave: but as a hired servant and as a resident laborer he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee: and then he shall depart from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return" (ibid., 39-41).
This is nearly all the Bible has to say about the jubilee; nevertheless, we have here a daring thrust of reformist thinking. In fact, this is an attempt to institutionalize periodic social upheavals.
The main difference between the biblical revolution and socialist revolutions is that the latter are supposed to occur once and for all, while the jubilee revolution should occur at regular intervals. According to plans based on the socialist ideal, a just distribution of land (and measures of social justice in general) will be set one day and admit no further changes. According to the Biblical plan, economic life will preserve after the jubilee full liberty for further changes. People will continue to make projects, to scheme, to struggle and compete; some will become rich, some will become poor; life will keep the character of an arena in which it is possible to lose or win, show initiative and fail or succeed.
This economic liberty would have only two limitations. The first limitation (or rather, an entire system of limitations) functions continuously: work is prohibited one day a week; one must leave the corner of his field and the gleanings of his vineyard for the poor; the tithe will be paid, being "holy unto the Lord".
Translated into modern terminology, this means limiting and regulating the working hours, and generally all legislation for employee protection, all social security and progressive taxing. The other limitation, or rather antidote, to economic liberalism is the jubilee. It is as if a huge axe sweeps once in a while like a storm over the forest of humanity, and cuts down those treetops which have grown above the average; debts are cancelled, the impoverished regains his property, the slave goes free. Balance is restored, and the economic game starts over again, until the next upheaval.
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C. Jubilee vs. Socialist Economics
One may ask whether the jubilee system is better or worse than socialism; but let us shelf this question for the moment. At present, the important thing is to establish that the jubilee is the very antithesis of socialism. The concept of repeated economic upheavals is an attempt to correct the ills of economic liberalism, not to forestall them. Quite on the contrary, this concept is clearly based on the conviction that free economic competition is one of the most powerful motivations in life. Let people struggle, lose and win. It is only necessary to cushion the arena with soft grass, so that whoever falls will not be too painfully injured.
This cushion is the Sabbath, the gleanings, the tithe, all the various means by which the State takes pains to prevent use from turning into exploitation, and poverty from becoming destitution. And once in a while the referee's whistle is heard in the arena: winners and losers return to their starting positions, and line up shoulder to shoulder. Precisely because the game must go on.
Whether prevention is better than cure - this is an age-old question. It comes to the mind of every mother of young children: which is better - to cure them if they catch a cold, or not to let them out so they will not catch a cold? Once the daughters are grown up, the question takes on another form: is it better to prohibit them from going out unchaperoned, or run the risk of a love affair getting out of hand and requiring drastic remedies? Or, on a national scale, which is better: censorship, or means which will prevent freedom of expression from degenerating into obscenity? A ban on demonstrations, or placing the police nearby to control riots? And generally, is it better to vaccinate against each and every disease, or have physicians and pharmacies? Some maintain that if it were possible to vaccinate a person against all possible diseases, he would turn into a perfect idiot. I am no physician, and unqualified to pronounce an opinion on the subject, but I wonder...
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D. Implementation of the Jubilee Principle
If I were a king, I would reform my kingdom on the basis of the jubilee concept rather than socialism. Of course, first I would have had to find wise counsellors and charge them with preparing a detailed plan on the basis of the Biblical indication. The ancient, inflexible, childish formulation cannot be carried out in our complex life; and historians doubt whether the Israelites ever practiced the jubilee precept in the days of old, or whether it was deferred to the days of the Messiah. But aren't all legal codes in the world replete with laws which were not obeyed in practice? We have not yet beaten our swords into plowshares; but one day Isaiah's prophecy will be fulfilled. Deferral to the days of the Messiah is not a death sentence; sometimes it is the sign of a true ideal. I would assemble wise men and charge them with developing the Biblical indication and translating it into modern terminology. I would issue an order to this commission as follows:
"Please adapt the concept of repeated social upheavals - institutionalized revolutions - to the conditions of modern economic life. And note: the fifty-year period prescribed by the Bible is not the essential point. You may establish other intervals. Moreover, you may dispense with the time statement altogether and replace it by a purpose statement. For example, you may decide that the jubilee will start when it is so recommended by an institution especially authorized for the purpose, such as a congress, senate, federation of economic associations, or referendum with simple or with special majority, as you deem best. The essential thing is that your plan should establish once and for all the legitimacy of the phenomenon called nowadays "social revolution". It should remove from this concept the terrible connotations of blood and violence, and turn it into an orderly occurrence, a part of the constitution, such as for example the convocation of an extraordinary national assembly for amendment of the constitution - an action which, although it is extraordinary and may not be undertaken without a special solemn resolution, is institutionalized and totally formulated beforehand. Moreover, please examine how implementation of this principle will affect the normal economic cycle, and especially its likely effect on credit, which is the basis of economic activity. In the same chapter of Leviticus you shall find a provision that the price of a field will be determined "according to the number of years after the jubilee", i.e. until the next "revolution". Naturally this provision is insufficient, and if the regular time interval between jubilees is eliminated, it would also be irrelevant; but if you follow the same line of reasoning, your wisdom and learning should be sufficient to find the necessary corrections to preserve the vitality of the credit base. So, consider the matter and show us the way; but let every person in our kingdom live, produce, trade, invent, aspire, strive towards his goal without previous censorship - and at the same time know that periodically the jubilee will arrive, "ye shall make the horn sound throughout your land... and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof".
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E. Towards a Capitalist Ideology
But I am no king. On the contrary, I am a child of that class whose very name has become an object of scorn: the bourgeoisie. Moreover, many bourgeois beat their breasts in contrition - a sentiment I do not share. I am not about to cry mea culpa. In my opinion, our treasured cultural heritage is almost entirely the product of the middle class and its forerunners in Rome, Greece, Israel and Egypt; and I believe that this social order is of infinite flexibility and adaptability - it is capable of assimilating enormous doses of social reforms, while conserving its essence. I am certain that the social order called bourgeois or capitalist will gradually establish a set of measures which will eliminate poverty, i.e. the decline of income below the level of being able to eat one's fill, to keep one's cleanliness and self-respect; were it not for the armament budgets, this could be realized in many countries even today. Furthermore, if like any living organism, the bourgeois order secretes inside itself certain poisons, and thus sometimes brings upon itself inevitable shocks - then, in my opinion, it is capable not only of absorbing such shocks without crumbling, but can even incorporate them into its system: legitimize its self-tests, institutionalize them, allow itself infinite possibilities to perfect itself through repeated social upheavals which are decreed, planned, and by the way - bloodless. In short, I believe not only that the capitalist system is inherently stable, but that it contains the seeds of a certain social ideal: ideal in its usual connotation, i.e. a vision worth dreaming of and fighting for. True, in this day and age such a vision has not yet become the spiritual nourishment of any person, but this proves nothing: there was a time when the proletariat did not have any socialist ideals either. It is certain that Roman society at the time of the Empire longed for new ideals; but were it not for St. Paul, Europe would not have known Christianity for another five hundred years. The word "capitalist" has become an insult, the bourgeoisie lowers its head in shame, begs excuse for its own existence; nevertheless, I believe that a new Marx will arrive and write three volumes on its ideology. And maybe they will not be called "Das Kapital" but "the Jubilee"...
Sometimes I think: socialism does have its enthusiasts and dreamers, which is perhaps its principal strength. But the world view whose symbol is for me the jubilee evokes a vision which has greater power to attract idealists. No socialist denies that, even though in the universal commune people may have enough to eat, life will be rather boring: only spiritual and intellectual matters will stir people up (and I think that in those days crossword puzzles will have a great future); but the stress of audacity and striving, this real, intoxicating, uplifting stress, will vanish forever...
One should not consider aesthetics when it is a matter of eliminating hunger. But the vision of a society functioning according to the jubilee system also includes the elimination of hunger; however, it retains the entire adventure of game and struggle, the excitement of sprint and chase, the charm of the free creative impulse. And most important - it retains the one thing which socialism has sworn to eradicate, and without which life may not be worth living - the eternal possibility of upheaval, the volcanic element in social life; a field of action, not a pasture.
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