Debt and Power

The latest post revisiting the Books Combined Archive: Deborah James on the books that inspire her. Originally published in November 2015.

Why should we bother to pay our debts? And why do those with financial and political power allow us to get into debt in the first place? These questions are increasingly urgent in a new era where deepening financialisation holds people in its grip. But they are not entirely new. The debt dilemmas of the newly upwardly mobile in South Africa, for example, remind us of those in some classic English novels. Satirising social life—of fashionable established elites and aspirant arrivistes—in the first half of the 19th century, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair shows that both were living on credit, and often tried to continue doing so for as long as possible. One, a baronet and parliamentarian, “did not find it convenient to pay” his creditors; he “had a savage pleasure in making the poor wretches wait, and in shifting from court to court and from term to term the period of satisfaction. What’s the good of being in Parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”

“Vanity” is the term Thackeray uses to characterise a society where such a man could inherit power despite holding superficial values and although his income and his outgoings did not—and would never—match. There are politicians in South Africa to whom these descriptions would apply very aptly; the President himself built his lavish residence ‘on tick’.

In the second half of that same century, industrialisation brought the promise of greater prosperity to many: but equally there were some who wanted to own way more than they could afford. The savagely satirical tone of Vanity Fair is superseded by that of books which convey a more poignant message. Rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, I find it shows (among many other things) the impossibility of bridging the gap between earnings and aspired-to lifestyles. The social climber Rosamund Vincy has snared herself a husband—the young doctor, Tertius Lydgate—with good prospects. But she isn’t satisfied with his modest earnings. There is only one way to acquire the possessions for which—so easily influenced by the shallow social mores of the newly affluent society around her—she so ardently longs. That is by getting them on credit or ‘on tick’. Equally, there is only one possible conclusion. Rosamund is faced with the shame and humiliation of having the furniture unceremoniously carted out of her house by the retailer with his horse and cart, as neighbours whisper their disapproval from behind their lace curtains. With characteristic moral complexity, Eliot brings the reader to a heartbreaking realisation. Bowing to competitive pressure from society by feeling compelled to acquire a luxurious lifestyle in the first place, Rosamund then feels society’s opprobrium when the elements of that lifestyle are, quite literally, taken away. Many of the members of the ‘new black middle class’ in South Africa have experienced similar dilemmas, as my book shows.

Closer to home, I was inspired by reading the semi-autobiographical novel Muriel at Metropolitan by Miriam Tlali: the first novel written by a black woman to be published (albeit a full six years after its completion) in South Africa. Denied the chance to study literature because of financial difficulties, she went to work in a furniture store—the fictitious “Metropolitan” of the title—and her experiences there form the substance of the novel. In this case, the moral dilemmas are extremely acute. Muriel feels guilt at her complicity in a money-making racket whereby beds, living-room suites and refrigerators are sold to other black people on credit. Having few other options to borrow, the customers form a kind of captive market, and when they cannot keep up their repayments, the items are carted away just as they were in Middlemarch.

Success in making money in this sector attracted high levels of competition. Mr. Bloch, the fictional owner of “Metropolitan”, observes that “at every corner there’s a furniture shop”, but nonetheless resolves to buy a new store situated near the train station where “hundreds of blacks pass every day,” hire extra employees, and take ever more risky kinds of deposit from ever more unreliable clients as down-payments. Meanwhile, employees, like Muriel, face ostracism from neighbours for being complicit in “squeezing money” out of clients “to swell the coffers of their white bosses”. Under pressure from fellow members of the black community, she and other employees engage in other kinds of collusion. They get involved in scams. They falsify records to favour clients, or accept bribes to turn a blind eye when repayments are in arrears. Similar practices are recounted in another book on a related topic, David Cohen’People who have Stolen from Me. The book is, as one review put it, “not so much a book about crime as it is about relative moralities”. Just who has stolen from whom?

To put all these relative moralities in a much broader historical context, readers will hardly need reminding of the importance of Debt: the first 5000 years by my LSE colleague and fellow-anthropologist David Graeber. One of the things he shows in this magisterial book is how rare it is for anyone to question the underlying premise that “one has to pay one’s debts”. In interrogating that premise, he criticizes deep-seated assumptions that lie at the heart of the global capitalist order. Something originally thought of as “reciprocity,” in which gifts or favours, once given, are returned only after long delays or are transferred onwards over the generations, has been transformed by the modern financial system, backed up by the power of the state, into a relationship of unequal power and of enduring hierarchy in the modern world: between creditor and debtor, first world and third world nations, rich and poor. To reject the power of that system is also, implicitly, to question the obligations that require borrowers to repay their loans.

Deborah James is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her book Money From Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa was published by Stanford University Press in 2014. She has written for the Mail and Guardian and has appeared in Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed, on the BBC.