Global Pandemic & the Rhythmic Spiral of Jubilee

by Tedd Siegel

Marc Chagall, 1911. Jewish farming in the Pale, Moshna, Belarus. Public Domain.

“We inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative.”

–Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

“The principle of political action that I am suggesting is that the rhythmic and spiral nature of time should be affirmed.”

–Arthur Waskow, Toward a Jubilee Economy & Ecology in the Modern World

Capitalism never misses an opportunity to tell us that the functioning of the free market is the very pinnacle of human freedom. So what happens when the entire human race needs to pause and rest, to stay at home and be quiet, thereby shattering our monomaniacal focus on work and economic growth?

Of course, we don’t really know. But we are in the midst of finding out.

When I laid out my plan for a series of articles on the possibility of refusing “work-as-we-know-it” late last summer, I wanted to explore the set of contradictions presently “widening the cracks” in the edifice of our pervasive capitalist realism. I wanted to see if the paradoxical lived experience of work-as-we-know-it might soon present a serious challenge to neoliberalism’s “TINA” (There Is No Alternative). Midway through the project, the global economy with its work machine is being shut down, and 2020 itself has been pretty much cancelled.

We are all getting a deeper understanding day-by-day of what this actually means, since nobody can really grasp the vast web of inter-connected economic activity in its totality (certainly not Wilbur Ross).

What is happening right now is not something well-captured by looking at the usual leading economic indicators, although in a quarter or two, the GDP, CPI and PPI, money supply, housing starts and the like will certainly have their story to tell. For some of us, it’s more something like this: Oh…no sitting in cafes and restaurants as the weather turns warm. No Wimbledon. No going here and there for budget summer vacay. Possibly no NBA. Possibly no Tour d’France. No Olympic games. No business travel. Possibly no 2020 election. For millions of people, lost jobs and no paychecks, and so no consumer spending. No elective or minor medical procedures. No visiting nursing homes. No gym. And on and on.

I have absolutely no idea what it means to try to “cold start” the entire global economy at some point down the road, after having shut it down on purpose. I have no idea what aspects of the prior normal will return, and when. Going to the movies? Eating in restaurants? Attending sporting events? Flying on planes? Obviously, it’s just too soon for anyone to try to say.

In lieu of such useless prognostication, I’ve become acutely interested in what it feels like for all of this diverse activity to be “not happening,” and I’m especially interested in the sorts of things that appear to be happening instead.

At the highest level of generality, the following points:

First, along with the cessation of large swathes of economic activity, at a subjective level, everything. Is. Slowing. Down. People are checking in with family and friends, cooking almost every meal at home, spending lots of time with pets, and hanging out in the backyard (weather and living condition permitting).

Second, along with the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, a lot of people are grieving. They are grieving their previous sense of security, and their future plans. They are grieving the fact that our country is so f-cked up; and they are trying to find ways to describe the novel experience of grieving for pretty much the whole human race.

The Whole King Lear Thing

Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine from the plague?

In his recent article, “Against Productivity in a Pandemic” (New Republic, March 2020) Nick Martin points to this annoying factoid as a prime example of the lame sort of self-optimization and productivity messages people are encountering, now that they have been directed to work from home.

Echoing this in her April 1st New York Times piece “Stop Trying to Be Productive,” Taylor Lorenz writes that “many people are feeling pressure to organize every room in their homes, become expert home chefs or bakers…and “take part in a peloton challenge” even though people are finding it much harder to get things done because we are “living through so much.”

Per Nick Martin, we are everywhere being encouraged to ask ourselves, “how can you continue to improve yourself with all this solitude? How can you continue to prove your worth as a hard worker?” On the work front, people are encountering even greater accountability and surveillance. New mandates, such as daily activity reports, explicit guidance on “answering chat messages within a few minutes,” and “demands to leave video cameras on,” among other things, are becoming ubiquitous.

The good worker during a pandemic, Martin writes, “is the good worker at any other time: always available to management.”

In response to these developments, Martin says that maybe more work, more mindless productivity, just isn’t the answer, and he calls out what he describes as “the obscenity of pretending that work and the self are the only things that matter.” And Lorenz suggests that instead of taking on new challenges right now, maybe it’s better to do things like keep a gratitude journal, and work on practicing acceptance.

These articles thus describe another thing that is apparently happening out there, along with staying home, slowing down and being still, and grieving: self-optimization and productivity messages are largely falling flat.

The need to slow way down, to focus on daily problem solving to meet a threat to basic survival, and to be supportive of family and friends, is causing people to confront the degree to which, as Martin quotes from Jenny Odell, “we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative.”

Shit’s Gettin’ Biblical

The collective decision to shut it all down, and then to pause, evokes all sorts of biblical resonances. For even the most secular of Jews like myself, the experience of ceasing all inessential activity, in order to reflect and atone, calls forth the rhythm of Shabbat (the Sabbath).

I must say that in thinking this way, I greatly surprise myself. In years past, when people asked me whether I was familiar with Jewish thought, I’d laughingly reply, “What, you mean like Spinoza and Maimonides?” Since my interest always drifted to the role of Jewish identity in the shaping of the modern experience and the Enlightenment, I was always more “Stephan Zweig than Theodore Herzl,” more “Walter Benjamin than Gershom Scholem,” if you catch my drift.

I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with sitting at home, hoping the plague will pass over the house. Or maybe it’s that mental image from The Ten Commandments–you know the one, the sickly green smoke winding its way through the narrow streets, accompanied by screams inside the houses.

Maybe it’s the fact that US peak of new infections is slated to occur on or around Pesach.

As I write this, I flash back, and watch myself float through Passover seders over the years in lazy indifference: After the story of the Exodus (Magid), we spill wine by dipping a finger or a spoon ten times, once for each plague visited upon Egypt. I hear the intoning voice, reciting as I dip and spill the drops upon my plate: Dam (blood). Sigh. Tzfardeiya (frogs). Yawn. Kinim (lice). Zzz. Etc.

Whatever happens from here, I don’t suppose I will ever snooze my way through the ten plagues again. Well, maybe just the gnats.

If all this weren’t enough to establish biblical resonance, then consider this: last week (when it was still allowed) I met my running buddy at the crack of dawn for our 1–2 hour run in the woods. When we got back to the parking lot, there were too many cars, so we considered the option of coming out even earlier next time. But we ended up deciding against it, because there are just too many mountain lions around these days since the order to shelter-in-place.

Is there anything more biblical than avoiding the plague only to be eaten by a lion?

Arthur Waskow & the Meaning of Shabbat

Reflecting on the “decision to cancel 2020” and how it has resulted a renewed appreciation for non-market-based sources of value, I’ve found myself thinking about the “big idea” of Rabbi Arthur Waskow, whom I met in 1988 while working as a publishing assistant at Tikkun Magazine. At that time, Michael Lerner, Arthur Waskow, and legal scholar Peter Gabel were very much the “three horsemen” of the Tikkun olam arm of Jewish Renewal).

Waskow (now 87 years old) had been an antiwar activist in the 60s, and then a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement starting in the 1970s, writing passionately about the intertwining of the Torah, social justice and human rights, and ecology, among other things.

Since he first saw the quote from Leviticus 25 on the Liberty Bell (“Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof”) during the US Bicentennial of 1976, Waskow has been writing and teaching about the relationship between Shabbat and the extended Jubilee cycle described in the Torah, and he has been dreaming about what it might mean to “realize Jubilee in the modern world.”

For Waskow, if Shabbat is understood in a way that is also inclusive of the year of Sabbatical (every seventh year) and the year of Jubilee (seven times seven years), the meaning of Shabbat is extended to include also the ecological imperative to allow the land to rest, and the socio-political imperative for redistribution of wealth and debt forgiveness. Likewise, Waskow says, these worldly practices themselves also reflect back, and deepen the understanding of Shabbat.

Non-observant people like myself (and even some observant ones) generally tend to think of Shabbat first and foremost in terms of its prohibitions. To this day, I can vividly recall my time in the dorms at Brandeis, where the more secular kids would run around after sunset on Friday, and turn off all the light switches in the rooms of the observant.

As Waskow, writes, the sabbath is “not just a set of rules about what you can’t do, “or even just a chance to sleep late and rest from work.” Rather, it is a way of understanding work, even good work, in relationship to totality.

To understand the meaning of the seventh day, Waskow says, is to reflect on what the Torah teaches about God and Creation. On the seventh day, as we all know, he rested. In Hebrew, Waskow writes, “shavat va yinafash.” That is, he paused, and took a breath.

To pause, to rest upon the Sabbath therefore, is certainly “to affirm the worth of one’s efforts,” but also to point beyond them. When “God saw that it was good,” so to speak, he saw creation, in the renewal of its natural and societal cycles, as a total accomplishment, sub specie aeternitatis.

When we rest upon the Sabbath, Waskow says, it’s important recognize that “even the best acts of creation and production and accumulation are not the single goal of human effort.”

In shifting attention away from the action, so to speak, and more toward the contemplation, Waskow here reminds me a bit of Joseph Pieper in his famous essay, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” where he points out how the modern conception of “total work” breaks with the medieval and ancient notion of leisure that was closely tied to those ages’ shared appreciation for the contemplative life.

Pieper recounts the familiar Kantian narrative: To avoid the dogmatism of claims to intellectual intuition, the modern age rejects the knowledge claims of both religious metaphysics and Romantic enthusiasm, privileging ratio as activity to the total exclusion of intellectus as a kind of passion and receptivity. In so doing, Pieper says, modern thought breaks apart what pre-modern knowledge insisted on holding together. While doing this makes the world safe for science and technology, it also so thoroughly banishes humanity’s “supersensible vocation” that it gives birth to the monstrous creature called “the intellectual worker” and thereby more or less throws out the baby with the bathwater.

Pieper is at his most polemical here, calling out the “intellectual sclerosis that comes from not being able to receive or accept, of that hardening of the heart that refuses to suffer anything.” He actually goes on to quote from Rauschining’s Conversations with Hitler, where in the 1920s Hitler purportedly tells the author that “Germans need to be brought back to the great truth that “only deeds and perpetual activity give meaning to life,” such that “every deed has its place, even crime,” whereas all passivity, all inertia, is senseless.”

For his part, Waskow intends to make a similar point rather less polemically, when he writes “the age we live in is essentially without Sabbath. We need more mystery and less mastery.”

The Rhythmic Spiral of Jubilee

In Leviticus 25 & 6, Waskow sees a breathing, regenerative system of seven spirals of Shabbat, a system that connects the transcendent God, the cycles of nature, and human justice.

  • Seven sunsets, and then Shabbat in order to pause, contemplate one’s works, and take a breath;
  • Seven months of Shabbats, and the festivals of the moon (Rosh Hashanah, the new moon; Yom Kippur, the waxing moon; Sukkot, the full moon);
  • Seven equinoxes, and the Sabbatical year of Shabbat, where the land is allowed to rest, and debts are forgiven;
  • Then a whirl up to the final spiral, seventh seven-year cycle, and Jubilee, where in addition to everything else, land is to be redistributed.

For Waskow, as has been indicated, the entire Jubilee cycle grows from the kernel that is Shabbat, and the intrinsic recognition and thus insistence that nobody owns the wealth of the earth, “not the boss, not the proletariat, not even the people as a whole. Only God who is beyond.” But the encompassing aspect of the entire cycle also means that “the spiritual, the political, and the practical are fused,” and that the sacred and the profane are related in “such a way that our greatest social illnesses must be seen to be intertwined:” worsening inequality, climate crisis, and a collapse of social solidarity, compassion, and love.

Given its unique structure, the Jubilee cycle amounts to a distinctive ideal of Jewish socialism, even if it was likely never fully instituted in practice. As Waskow writes, the Jubilee speaks to a rhythm, a cycle of change and renewal, and “not to static equality.” For six years of every seven, Waskow explains, “it is all right for someone to accumulate wealth and some to lose it, and for the earth to be forced to work under human command.” Every seventh year, loans must be forgiven, and the land be allowed to rest.” But once every generation, there must be a great transformation. In the fiftieth year, “the land must be shared, and the poor get their share.”

Per Waskow, the Torah represents Sabbatical and Jubilee as years of release; this means that Jubilee “does not ask for the rich to give their land away in fear or guilt, or for the wretched to rise in rage and take it. Rather, it proclaims a release, “Shabbat for everyone. The rich are released from working, bossing, production, and being envied. The poor are released from working, hunger, humiliation and despair, and pity.”

Jubilee for the Modern World

The basic lesson here for us, Waskow writes, is that “once every fifty years or so, if there is no redistribution of wealth and power, there is a great depression. The rich get stuck in their ways, and the poor get stuck with the bill, and the society gets stuck in its tracks.”

This seems still acutely relevant for our own time; but as Waskow admits, “we have not yet found a way to sound the ram’s horn that will call forth liberty throughout the land.”

For people like Arthur Waskow, for whom “god wrestling” apparently comes naturally (i.e., somebody actually answers back when you argue) the holism of a religious communitarian response seems like something tantalizingly within reach. All that has to happen is that each one of us, recognizing that “nobody owns the wealth of the earth, only God who is beyond,” needs to affirm the rhythmic and spiral nature of time as a political principle.

In this pre-modern holism (the fusion of spiritual, political, and practical) Waskow also sees a kind of an antidote to the stalemate of Left vs. Right. For half a century, he’s been speaking up in political meetings, both in the US and in Israel, and saying, but what about the Jubilee? The conservatives “who demand that the family be strengthened,” he writes, “turn furious at the idea of abolishing all wealth and privilege.” Whereas “the radicals who demand that the rich be expropriated” are baffled by the ideas that “the land be left unproductive, or the regressive institutions of the family be celebrated.”

To those of us who simply cannot take the necessary step beyond, Waskow says that the Jubilee could be for us “not quite a model, but a pointer, a hint.”

What then does the Torah and the Jubilee have to say to us, when applied to contemporary society? To begin with, Waskow writes, the Torah envisions an economy profoundly different from the one we are used to. We live in an economy that is based on constant, explosive growth. If we want to use the Jubilee as a kind of a pointer, we need to recognize that “individual rest is not enough…communal rest is necessary for the renewal of work.”

In his book God Wrestling: Round 2, Waskow turns to “scientists, business people, and economists” asking them to suspend their own skepticism about what it would be possible to get society to do, and instead just “imagine what might be a modern way of carrying out the Sabbatical year or the Jubilee.”

The practical proposals Waskow gets back about what various sectors might do in the service of renewal (if given a chance to pause and reflect upon their works) are both consistent with his holistic approach to the ills of society, and very much fit the pattern of the emerging domain of “degrowth economics.”

In God Wrestling, Waskow wants us to recognize that there is at least some value in “Jubilee dreaming,” even though the wish that society should take time to pause and reflect, to breathe, and to contemplate cycles of renewal, is mostly without an object, because the possibility of such a thing occurring is exceedingly hard to imagine.

Or so it was, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic effectively cancelled 2020.

Michael Hudson & Debt Jubilee

It would be terribly wrong to say that there is “anything good” about the present global human emergency, or to go looking for silver linings and hidden opportunities. Still, conceptual historians often talk about “complex histories of effects,” because events on a global scale send out ripples in all directions, resulting in diverse unforeseen consequences. It is thus useful to ponder these emerging consequences, and to think about them, “not as good or bad,” but instead as ‘just dangerous,” as Michel Foucault was fond of saying.

For example, we are all aware that reduction in global economic activity is resulting in some positive short-term impacts on climate (especially localized air pollution). And there is widespread speculation that dramatic changes in patterns of consumption and behavior that are emerging to combat the spread of the virus, might end up pointing the way to changes in mass behavior that are needed to fight the climate crisis.

Almost needless to say, there are also those among us who hope that facing a common existential threat will lead to increased inter-group solidarity (one world, one love–minus Trump and Bannon of course).

By way of a conclusion, it is interesting to note that economist Michael Hudson (noted critic of neo-rentier finance capitalism, historian of debt, and noted author of Killing the Host) thinks the time is actually ripe, under conditions of pandemic depression, for a debt jubilee.

In a March 2020 Washington Post Op Ed, Hudson writes that while an American debt crisis was inevitable, COVID-19 had made it immediate, and that it is now time to abandon the ironclad logic of capitalism that all debts must be repaid, in order to write down massive amounts of bad debt.

In saying that “it doesn’t have to be this way” Hudson makes his argument for a bold change in economic policy by making explicit reference to the Jubilee.

Jubilee, he writes, as a “slate-cleaning, balance restoring step,” recognizes the fundamental truth that “when debts grow too large to be paid without reducing debtors to poverty, the way to hold society together and restore balance is simply to cancel the bad debts.”

You know shit’s getting’ biblical when even the economists are talking about Jubilee.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”