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States of Nature: The Jubilee and the Social Contract

States of Nature: The Jubilee and the Social Contract

(p.126) 5 States of Nature: The Jubilee and the Social Contract
Sovereignty and the Sacred
Robert A. Yelle
University of Chicago Press

Chapter 5 considers the institutions of the Sabbath, Sabbatical, and Jubilee years as radical interruptions of both agricultural labor and the money economy. Against attempts to reduce these institutions to social justice measures, it is argued that they play a role in the imagination of polity analogous to that played by depictions of the state of nature in early modern social- contract theories. The ancient precedent for these institutions was the Mesopotamian debt cancellations declared by the king, often at the beginning of his reign. These older debt releases were a form of the pardon power, a positive version of the sovereign decision analogous to divine grace. Comparing and contrasting the Jubilee with John Locke’s utilitarian account of the origins of property, it is suggested that the Jubilee expressed a quite different, antiutilitarian economic ethic: the utopian dream of a return to the condition of equality thought to obtain among the Israelites upon the Conquest of Canaan. In opposition to the inequities of the mundane economy, the Jubilee posited a future redemption that was also a return to the foundations of a more egalitarian polity.

Keywords:   Jubilee Year, debt cancellation, state of nature, storage economy, hunter-gatherers, utilitarianism, John Locke, social contract, native Americans, Buddhism

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