A number of people remarked at the time that Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery, that even at the end, she does not understand. Few realised that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play.
They did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing.
Misfortune is itself a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance, nor what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.
Bertolt Brecht, “Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher,” 1949
Michael Hudson: Every kind of reform, from Mesopotamia to Greece, was put forth as if it simply restored the way things were in the beginning. There was no concept of linear progress in Antiquity. They thought that there was only one way to do things, so any reform must be the way the world was meant to be in the very beginning. All reformers would say that in the beginning everybody must have been equal. Their reform was aimed at restoring this state of affairs.
That’s why, when Plutarch and even the Spartan kings in the third century BC talked about canceling debts and promoting equality, they said that they were simply restoring the original system that Lycurgus had created. But there was no sign that Lycurgus had really done these things. It was made up. Lycurgus was a legendary figure. So was Moses in the Jewish tradition. When the Bible was redacted and put together after the return from Babylon, they put debt cancellation and land redistribution —the Jubilee Year — right in the center of Mosaic Law. So it seemed that this was not an innovation, but what Moses said in the beginning. They created a Moses figure much like the Greeks created a Lycurgus figure. They said that this is how things were meant to be. This is how it was in the beginning — and it just happened to be their own program.
This was a projection backwards: a retrojection. Felix Jacoby wrote that Athenian history was that way, basically party pamphleteering projecting their ideal program back to Solon or to whomever one might choose as a good guy to model. Writers would then say that this original good guy supported the program that they were proposing in their epoch. This was the ancient analogy to “Constitutional Originalism” in the United States as a frame for right-wing policies.
John Siman: So, ever since the 500s BC, the surefire way to critique the status quo has been to say you are trying to go back to the Garden of Eden or to some other pristine Saturnian Golden Age.
MH: Yes, you want to say that the unfair world around you isn’t what was meant, so this couldn’t have been the original plan, because the past had to be a successful takeoff. So the program that reformers always turned out to be what the Founding Fathers meant.
JS: That’s very inspirational!
MH: The key is to appear as a conservative, not a radical. You accuse the existing status quo as being the beneficiaries of the radicals who have distorted the original Fair Plan that you’re trying to restore.
JS: So in the 500s BC we have Cyrus — and his inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder — boasting that he freed the Babylonians from their tax debt and bonds, and we have the post-exilic Jews proclaiming d’ror [דְּרֹ֛ור] in Leviticus 25, proclaiming “liberty throughout the land.” We also have the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens, isonomia [ἰσονομία, literally, equality under the law], a genuine attempt at democracy. But let’s start with Rome. What do you want to say about the nova libertas, the “new liberty” proclaimed in Rome after the last king was expelled and the Republic was founded? Didn’t Brutus and his wellborn friends boast that they were the institutors of true liberty?
MH: Liberty for them was the liberty to destroy that of the population at large. Instead of cancelling debts and restoring land tenure to the population, the oligarchy created the Senate that protected the right of creditors to enslave labor and seize public as well as private lands (just as had occurred in Athens before Solon). Instead of restoring a status quo ante of free cultivators — free of debt and tax obligations, as Sumerian amargi and Babylonian misharumand andurarum meant — the Roman oligarchy accused anyone of supporting debtor rights and opposing its land grabs of “seeking kingship.” Such men were murdered, century after century.
Rome was turned into an oligarchy, an autocracy of the senatorial families. Their “liberty” was an early example of Orwellian Doublethink. It was to destroy everybody else’s liberty so they could grab whatever they could, enslave the debtors and create the polarized society that Rome became.
JS: OK, but this program worked. The Republic grew and grew and conquered everyone else for century after century. Then the Principate became the supreme power in the Western world for several more centuries.
MH: It worked by looting and stripping other societies. That can only continue as long as there is some society to loot and destroy. Once there were no more kingdoms for Rome to destroy, it collapsed from within. It was basically a looting economy. And it didn’t do more than the British colonialists did: It only scratched the surface. It didn’t put in place the means of production that would create enough money for them to grow productively. Essentially, Rome was a financial rentier state .
Rentiers don’t create production. They live off existing production, they don’t create it. That’s why the classical economists said they were supporting industrial capitalists, not British landlords, not monopolists and not predatory banks.