It's not about you!
Finweek English|8 October 2021
Why we need a broader lens to address the issue of debt in individuals.
Anne Cabot-Alletzhauser

In 2011, three years after the Global Financial Crisis, a rather remarkable publication reached the commercial bookshelves. The book was called Debt, The First 5 000 Years. What made the book a “must read” was that it looked at the issue of debt from a totally different perspective: that of an economic anthropologist with a keen interest in how the concept of debt has evolved in societies around the world over the last 5 000 years.

But David Graeber was more than just a noted academic who taught at both Yale (until he was denied tenure) and the London School of Economics. He also had become one of Time Magazine’s 2011 Persons of the Year for his role in nudging Wall Street towards what he called “a fresh vision for the financial services industry”. It was a movement that came to be known as Occupy Wall Street.

Graeber’s central thesis was that the concept of “debt” had evolved from one that had initially been the natural glue that kept societies together, to one that had become an instrument for power dynamics. One of his more important contributions was the concept that debt existed long before the concept of money – a fact that appears to have escaped most economic classrooms.

But while debt has existed since the dawn of man, being forced to pay it off with money is a relatively new phenomenon. By the 15th century, society was already mired in considerable moral confusion about debt: One should pay one’s debts, but similarly we are counselled to forgive our debtors; charging interest is immoral, but legal frameworks invariably protect the lender’s rights first. But the more humankind asserted their rights for autonomy and to be paid a fair wage for their services, the more this “privilege” brought with it the consequences that the social bond of debt had now morphed into a legal bond – with all its dehumanising consequences.

The net effect was that, in Western societies, “indebtedness” had transformed from a social dialogue founded on principles of cooperation and codependence into a financial one, where the one who is indebted is judged to be the moral lesser. As Graeber argues, indebtedness immediately makes it seem as though it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.

That’s where the conversation seems to begin and end when we discuss personal debt in South Africa. A meta-analysis of articles relating to debt places the primary focus on the psychology of the debt-ridden individual. Our solutions are singularly targeted at addressing their “problem” and what it would take to get them to make better decisions. (Better budgeting? Better “nudges”? Better long-term planning?)

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