Reimagining Jubilee: A Political Horizon for Our Times

Protesters hold up a sign saying, "Neighbors United can stop foreclosure."

Anti-foreclosure activists demonstrate outside a Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in San Francisco. In the lead-up to the 2006 financial crisis, 59 percent of blacks received predatory mortgages versus 16 percent of white borrowers. Credit: Just Cause (

Historian Peter Linebaugh traces the first known African American usage of the concept of Jubilee to an 1834 edition of a children’s magazine called The Southern Rose Bud. The description of slave children singing a hymn reads: “Don’t you hear the Gospel trumpet sound Jubilee?” From this we know that by 1834 the idea of Jubilee was well known to the slaves—even children. And while the intent of the Bible’s call for Jubilee and the possibility of its implementation have both been debated over the decades, one thing is true: the hope of Jubilee has animated the struggles of the enslaved, the oppressed, and the exploited for hundreds of years.

The hope of Jubilee continues to run parallel and in juxtaposition to the long history of disparity, racism, and servitude—not only as a horizon to look toward, but as a state of being. I want to propose that we might take up the concept of Jubilee as a moral and political path toward a broad restructuring of our society. Further, eradication of all debts and an end to current property ownership arrangements offer a way toward ending the racial divides on which our socioeconomic system is based.

The Housing Act and the Rise of Debtocracy

Debt has a history. In 1934, one hundred years after the first printed mention of Jubilee in that children’s magazine, the Housing Act was signed into law. This moment marks the beginning of the transition toward the conditions of “debtocracy.” The Housing Act was a Faustian bargain by which jobs were created by stimulating the construction industry in exchange for the codification of a partnership between Wall Street and the government, whereby the taxpayers took the risk, and the banks took the profit. Rather than ending up with a democracy, we ended up with a debtocracy in which banks came to control labor—and the aspirations of laborers—through debt. Since the Housing Act of 1934, personal debt has become ubiquitous, and the deepening burden of debt has become increasingly oppressive, binding citizens into futures beyond the horizon.

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