Eight Themes in Mesopotamia’s Evolving Labor-Shaped Economies

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Economist Michael Hudson traces the changing form of organization of labor shaped economies, fiscal policy and property rights over time.

Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer.jpg
Michael Hudson has devoted his career to the study of debt.
The first version of this paper appeared as “How the Organization of Labor Shaped Civilization’s Takeoff,” in Labor in the Ancient World (ed. with Piotr Steinkeller, ISLET, 2015):649-664.


By the Bronze Age, society’s survival required the organization of communal labor to provide corvée services and conscription in the military. Members of the community, citizens and “sons of the city” worked on publicly organized projects such as building temples and city walls and digging local irrigation ditches. Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt and Mycenaean Greece developed account keeping largely to organize labor, land tenure, credit and commercial enterprise to provision corvée groupings and temple and palace workshops.

By the time written records appear in the third millennium BC, labor had long been mobilized for large building projects that must have involved entire communities. From the early Neolithic, this mobilization was organized on different principles from those of the modern world. Corvée labor obligations were linked to fiscal systems based on land tenure. Most members of the community were self-supporting on the land, with land-tenure rights associated with obligations to perform public labor services. This must have been organized on a voluntary basis, given the ever-present option of flight.

In tracing the changing organization of labor shaped economies, fiscal policy and property rights over time, it’s possible to identify eight major themes.

Theme #1: Labor Shortages Mean Employers Need to Curry Favor

Harvard Professor of Assyriology Piotr Steinkeller emphasizes that instead of a “reserve army of the unemployed” driven off the land, labor was in short supply throughout the Bronze Age. One consequence was that corvée labor service had to be organized with widespread assent. Organizing work to build basic infrastructure could not have been too coercive, because its participants might have run away. Lehner’s report of large volumes of remains of slaughtered animals indicating great feasts for Egypt’s pyramid builders seems to reflect long-standing practice throughout the ancient Near East to make such work acceptable.

Theme #2: Communal Work Produced Social Capital

Being organized communally for public construction projects in the first instance, the “output” of corvée labor was not marketable and had no exchange value. The work produced social value, creating ceremonial buildings, city walls, irrigation systems and roads as “social capital.” Hence, modern supply and demand curves for labor and remuneration rates based on the market value of its output are not relevant.

Third-millennium temple and palace records show manual labor paid at standardized rates, ranked by sex and age (and in time by occupation). The basis for most salaries was what adult men, women and children needed for basic sustenance. Schoolbook exercises calculated the food needed per worker, denominated in grain or bread equivalents directly convertible into standard weight units of silver money. By Neo-Babylonian times such wages were paid in silver.

Theme #3:Temples Were the Main Employer of Skilled Labor

Skilled craft labor was employed mainly by the large institutions. Craftsmen were only a small part of the labor force, but they required a broad range of supporting activities to supply raw materials, schedule their delivery and provide tools. Being of large scale, this required management, oversight, account keeping and credit, and therefore was centered in the temples and palaces (and on large estates whose owners usually were associated with the temples or the royal family).

Theme #4: Trade Led to Tension Between Public and Private Interests

Mesopotamian institutions and households obtained wealth largely by foreign trade, producing handicrafts and consigning them to merchants in a symbiotic relationship with the temple or royal bureaucracies. These merchants played a catalytic role in entrepreneurial trade. As temple and palace activities were increasingly privatized in the hands of merchants and lessors of land or public enterprises, the resulting mixed economies had what today would be called a conflict between public and private interest.

Theme #5: Labor-for-Hire Was Initially Exceptional

Labor-for-hire started as a marginal phenomenon. Well-to-do citizens could hire surrogates to perform their corvée duty—typically younger brothers or other relatives. Unlike manual labor for construction, handicraft work outside the large institutions typically was remunerated on a piecework basis. Weavers worked at home, much like those in England before power looms were introduced.[1] But piecework labor by skilled craftsmen became more frequent by Neo-Babylonian times, as did seasonal harvesting labor.

Theme #6: Usury Facilitated Debt Bondage and the Denial of Land Rights

Agrarian and personal usury became a major means to obtain labor services through debt bondage, and in time to pry away land rights. Local “big men,” tamkarum merchants and palace collectors sought control of labor at the expense of the palace’s fiscal authority that sought to maintain land tenure rights/obligations as a means of assigning responsibility for providing corvée labor and service in the army.

Theme #7: Temples and Palaces Were Creditors

Mesopotamia’s large institutions were creditors not debtors. Most personal and agrarian debts took the form of obligations to these institutions for advances of agricultural inputs or consumer goods. Collectors in the royal bureaucracy charged usury on arrears for these advances. Such debts increased sharply in times of drought, flooding and military hostilities. Falling into debt became the major dynamic leading to economic inequality as citizens lost their personal liberty and land tenure rights. Enforcing debt claims led to creditor foreclosure on the liberty of debtors, and ultimately their land rights.

Theme #8: Debt Was Tied to Labor

The way in which debt problems were resolved became the major factor determining the status of labor.

Rulers restored fiscal stability, corvée labor and military service—as well as the personal liberty of debtors—by proclaiming royal Clean Slates that rescued debtors from bondage by clearing away the personal debts, bond servitude and land forfeitures that had occurred since the last such edict.

But by the 8th century BC, Near Eastern commercial practices were brought westward to Mediterranean lands that lacked the traditions of entrepreneurial temples and royal Clean Slate edicts. The replacement of kingship and Clean Slates by oligarchies distinguishes classical Greek and Roman economies from those of the earlier Near East. Populations became more debt-ridden, and debt bondage became a major means of obtaining dependent labor and ultimately monopolizing the land, driving the citizenry into clientage and bondage by the time of the Roman Empire.

Landholders and creditors at the top of the Late Roman Empire’s economic pyramid managed to avoid tax obligations, creating a fiscal and monetary breakdown. Demographic and commercial shrinkage ensued as the domestic market was impoverished. The modern world has likewise dissociated landholding rights and wealth from their former social responsibilities. Land and real estate have been “freed” from the fiscal obligations originally attached to it. Land has ceased to be a public utility and has become an investment vehicle, increasing labor’s cost of shelter and the mortgage debt typically attached to it.

Land Tenure Today

Housing and land tenure (“a home of one’s own”) no longer is a right or indeed criterion for citizenship. Its financialization and increasing concentration of ownership has shifted the fiscal burden increasingly onto labor, obliging wage-earners to pay payroll tax withholding and steeply regressive income and sales taxes, along with other wage set-asides for health care and retirement, while facing rising indebtedness to cover the cost of their basic needs. As occurred in late antiquity, this is polarizing society economically and financially by forcing labor into deepening dependency, with no periodic restoration of financial and economic balance and equity.

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