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What is the real cost of debt?

The June 2021 issue of ‘Working Notes’ tackles the thorny subject of debt from many angles. In a series of substantial articles the issue, edited by Martina Madden of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, examines the manner in which debt – or the many forms of indebtedness – constitutes the governing trope of our culture. At a literal level most lives in the developed world are dominated by a series of debts (student loans, mortgages, other bank loans) and poorer countries are shackled by massive national debts from which they can practically never escape. But there is also the deployment of debt-language in respect to justice and penal systems and to the relations between liberated countries and their former colonial masters, and perhaps most significantly of all, in the Christian language of sin, atonement, redemption, and liberation. All of these matters are probed in this issue.

In her introduction, Martina Madden notes that even though we are trained to think in terms of personal agency and accountability, this is mostly illusory: “We may enjoy the illusion of control over our lives, but in many ways we are just cogs in the machine of neoliberal capitalism; a system that relies on our indebtedness for its existence”. Many injustices and inequalities follow. What Madden argues for, then, is a complete reframing of our understanding of debt. When it comes to the goods of the earth, we need to return to the original Christian vision, as expressed for example by St Ambrose of Milan: “It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; it is a portion of his own that you are restoring to him. The earth belongs to all. So, you are paying back a debt and think you are making a gift to which you are not bound”. This understanding has been translated in Catholic Social Teaching into the principle of ‘the universal destination of goods’ – the earth and its resources belong to everyone.

Kevin Hargaden also adds to the theological backdrop behind the matter of debt. He turns to St Anselm of Canterbury, the 11th century Benedictine monk whose theory of atonement as the satisfaction of an infinite debt caused by sin has been immensely influential in Christian theology. In Hargaden’s reading of Anselm, all of humanity lies under a basic and universal existential debt, from which only God could save us. Hence Christ’s torture and death both constitutes “a cosmic rebalancing” and exposes “once and for all the violence at the core of human civilisation”. Rather then than argue that we abandon the language of debt, Hargaden proposes that we acknowledge it, not in the narrower sense of a sum that must be repaid, but instead as a broad metaphysical fact of human existence. We are in debt, immense unrepayable debt – debt to our parents, teachers, family members, and friends, and to all the people who have brought us to where we are. And just as humanity was unable to restore the balance lost by sin and needed Christ to wipe out the debt, so too are we constitutively incapable of returning all we owe to those on whom we have relied. As Hargaden puts it:

The claim that Anselm makes is that a universal human constant of ‘indebtedness’ was exposed by Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection. The cross exposes the universal debt and the empty tomb obliterates it.

Through Christ’s actions “we are credited without debt”, and so “gratitude is the appropriate response”. “We are not debtor subjects, but grateful recipients.”

A similar reframing of the notion of debt is proposed in an essay that queries the usefulness of the metaphor of ‘paying one’s debt to society’ in the context of the justice system. ‘False accounting: Why we shouldn’t ask people who commit crimes to pay their debts to society’ was written by three researchers at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, Alice Ievins, Ben Jarman and Thea Thomasin. The authors note the pervasive role played by what they call ‘retributive thought’, an attitude to wrong-doing that is “deeply concerned with questions of social responsibility, social order and social membership”. The limits of the usefulness of this mindset are illustrated through the story of ‘Derek’, a man imprisoned for murder in England who found himself subject to various forms of persecution and exclusion because the system required him to pay “an unpayable debt”. The article argues for understanding the restorative function of the penal system as a community affair that truly tries to address the harm done through a sense of “fulfilling a civic obligation” rather than “paying one’s debts”.

Other essays in ‘Working Notes’ examine Modern Monetary Theory as an alternative to the debt-oriented neoliberal capitalist model, atonement and reparations for historic injustice, especially in the context of the slave trade), and the destructive alienating effects of debt addiction.

All of the articles in the June 2021 ‘Working Notes’ can be read here »