Excerpts on Debt

On 2015 Grexit and debtors’ prisons:

Jacob Soll, an economic historian (The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations, 2014), in a summary of the Greek crisis observes that we have heard about “how the Greeks feel humiliated. But we’ve heard less about German anger, though we know they are angry.” When attending the Conference on Re-Thinking Sovereign Debt held by Center for Economic Studies in Munich in July 2015, he had a chance to discuss the German anger with first-rate German economists to find out that “Germany played no real part in the Greek tragedy. …” When countered with possible consequences of “chaos,” “populism,” “unrest and social misery,” his interlocutors were unimpressed: Debtors who default, they explained, would simply have to suffer, no matter how rough and even unfair the terms of the loans. There were those who handled their economies well, and took their suffering silently, like Finland and Latvia, they said. In contrast, a country like Greece, where many people don’t pay their taxes, did not seem to merit empathy.

Now, when it comes to the deadly silence coming from Lithuania, Estonia or, for that matter, Poland (maintaining its GPD by economic tricks rather than by veritable rise in society’s wellbeing), it means perhaps that despair, prolonged loss, chronic tragedy, and ruined lives find no words to express themselves (even if they find access to the mainstream discourse, their tales just come out too dull to stick). But this message in a bottle perhaps will alight one day on a shore to be read by a friendly passer-by: It gives me no satisfaction to know that a Greek teacher’s salary will be slashed to match my salary. It gives me no pleasure to think that a Greek pensioner will have to starve herself to pay for her electricity bill the way my neighbors do. “It reminded me,” Soll adds, “that in German, debt, ‘schuld,’ also means moral fault or blame.” The people who are already barely holding up (the elderly, the infirm, the chronically unemployed) may not have it in them to face the blame and the anger. Silence becomes their refuge, their debtors’ prison.

On debtors’ prisons, Samuel Johnson, and the debt flow within the EU:

Samuel Johnson in “Idler no. 38” expands on the list of afflictions that caused high mortality in debtors’ prisons (congestion, starvation, bribery, and the lack of medical care) to add “The corrosion of resentment, the heaviness of sorrow, the corruption of confined air, the want of exercise, and sometimes of food, the contagion of diseases, from which there is no retreat, and the severity of tyrants, against whom there can be no resistance, and all the complicated horrours of a prison,” which, he says, “put an end every year to the life of one in four of those that are shut away from the common comforts of human life.” Considering Johnson’s list, we might surmise that we are now witnessing the case of whole countries being locked up in structures resembling debtors’ prisons, whose inhabitants may be held interminably until they reform. (37)

On debtors’ prisons and Michel Foucault’s panopticon:

Foucault omits debtors’ prisons in Discipline and Punish entirely, but not surprisingly: the point of the panopticon—to habituate the prisoners to control themselves in order to prevent their rebellion or escape—is missing entirely in the case of a debtors’ prison. Debtors as convicts do not plot or attempt collective escapes; they do not plan new crimes. Nor do they exchange bad influences, as they are too busy trying to survive. These prisoners are not violent. To trap them by visibility would be pointless. They seem “happy” to be allowed to subsist in a kind of shadowy, parasitic existence, to sponge on others (their visitors, their children) while being sponged off of by various turnkeys, errant runners, and others who provide services for their subsistence. When at last allowed to leave, they carry the prison walls with them, the way both William Dorrit and Tip, his wayward son, do.

The most important feature of the debtors’ prison—the most important for our analysis—is its for-profit aspect. The prison, throughout its entire existence, is leased and then subleased to submanagers. These submanagers have to pay for the lease; that is, for the right to collect rent from the rooms and the privilege to sell food and drink. On top of it, they have to make a profit. Prisoners, on their end, have to feed and clothe themselves, furnish their own rooms, and pay bribes to turnkeys if they want to avoid torture (in medieval times) or mistreatment. If they cannot produce their own money or external support, they face starvation. If they cannot pay the rent, their imprisonment extends interminably.

On debtors’ prisons and Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit:

Debtors’ prison as a refuge? But the doctor, “an old jail-bird” is an unreliable narrator who, having received “the additional and unusual stimulus of money in his pocket, returns to his associate and chum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy” (cht.6), as exposed by Dickens in his narrator’ commentary.

Dickens sums up debtors’ prison as a place fit to be either a refuge or banishment for those who fail at living. High-rank shrewd financiers will never set foot in the Marshalsea. Mr. Merdle, the man hailed as a financial genius, carries on a successful Ponzi-like scheme because, to his own utter amazement and against all reason, investors continue to find his bank trustworthy. Once the scheme is about to crash, he conveniently ends his life in the public baths, never having to face the slightest consequence. Only the ignorant and the bewildered, like William Dorrit, or the ostensibly honest ones, like Arthur Clennam, go to jail. In the recent BBC production of Little Dorrit (2008), the prison inhabited by tacit and confused individuals seems almost too much like our lives.

On the Free Republic of Congo and the EU:

Considering that Brussels, with evidence of its riches apparent at every major town square commemorating the merciless exploitation of the Congo Free State, is now the capital of the EU, I conclude that Conrad makes a much more vulnerable target. Following Eudora Welty’s ironical regret, “How unfair it is that good intentions don’t make art…” voiced in “Should the Writer Be a Crusader,” I propose that writers do not have to subjugate themselves to naive and self-explanatory modes of ascertaining that punishment-driven audiences will not confuse them with their characters. Allowing Achebe to beat Conrad over the head so as to have Conrad pay for the centuries of African exploitation may create an impression that accounts between Europe and Africa are back in balance, but the continuous exodus of tragically afflicted people from the shores of Africa belies this fantasy.

On the hysteria surrounding the refugee crisis:

The refugees’ arrival disrupts social falsity, exhibiting its pretended amnesia. The people of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Pakistan, and India, among others, had never given their consent to the idea of supporting the Europeans and their livelihoods throughout the centuries. A truly utopian project would pose the direct demand of settling accounts for millions of lives lost or damaged, only not with the present irrevocably corrupt governments, but with the small communities bearing the scars of injury. The never-balanced accounts between Europe and Africa rest on the piles of dead hands of the early years of the rubber collection on one end of the scale, and the splendid views of Brussels and the EU headquarters on the other.

On Eastern Europe:

Eastern Europe never took part in the Indignados movement because the idea that people burdened with mortgages ballooning out of proportion, evicted from their houses, people who fell off the employment track at fifty, people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities, never deserve compassion has been sold to Eastern Europe as the basis of capitalism. Those who argued otherwise were accused of defying the principles of capitalism and deemed hostile to the important task of embracing it.

Eastern Europeans have this knowledge hammered into their consciences as early as grade school. It consists of only one premise: failure is the individual’s own fault. Having lost savings, job, or home, such an individual must vanish if he or she wants to avoid making demands under a threat of sanctioned public ridicule.

Neither the law nor the judgement of social media considers exceptions: even the propensity to follow the church guidelines too strictly and produce more children than one can feed within consecrated marriage will not stand as an excuse for poverty, not to mention old age dementia, mental disability, or just an inability to make ends meet, all of which deserve banishment to the camp labeled Delinquency and Shame. Many individuals readily volunteer themselves as guards to keep us under lock and key.

Trapped in cognitive failure, Eastern Europe breeds its own resentments. Haven’t we created tax breaks for foreign investors? We have, which has resulted in artificial growth of GDP to satisfy the wizards from the Economist, parallel to the slow destruction of health care, education, and retirement systems, and to the unspeakable collapse of small towns. Now, on top of that, the Westerners wish us to pity their refugees?

On Doris Lessing and writers:

In Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, a collection of lectures written for the prestigious Massey Series to be delivered in 1985, four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doris Lessing ponders the purposefulness of writers. She … proposes that we are all susceptible to political brainwashing “unless we are suffering from certain types of schizophrenia” (35). Yet of all professions, she concedes, writers are “by nature more easily able to achieve detachment from mass emotions and social conditions” (7) and thus more resistant.

The basis for this resistance? Discernment for a writer is a matter of practice.

Lessing perceives writers as independent commentators and members of a spiritual unity, a monkish-like global order, as she envisions “writers, generally, in every country, as a unity, almost like an organism, which has been evolved by society as a means of examining itself ” (7). This task of writers, as much as they are given to understand that “democracy is always precarious and must be fought for,” remains shielded from the public: “Writers, books, novels, are used like this, but they don’t think the attitudes towards writers, literature, reflects this. Not yet” (8). Since it seems to be a writer’s task to give voice to the dispossessed, it would be interesting to examine if writers, whether linked in a manner that is both organic and holistic or not, whether Keynesian at heart or not, indeed refuse to succumb to the gloss of neoliberalist capitalism, the latter bent on evicting any contrary expressions, deemed failures or public menace, from the public discourse.

                                                  From: Morska, Glorious Outlaws: Debt as a Tool…