Thursday, 20 December 2007

Cancel First World Debt!

UnLtdWorld is a new social networking site which aims to bring together people who want to "generate social impact" - in other words, change the world. I've met Alberto, who's running it, and I was impressed by his experience and the way he's approaching the project.

So this morning I sat down to create my profile on their Beta site, when I came to two questions which temporarily stumped me:

  • What issue most concerns you in the world?

  • What single issue would you change to make the world a better place?

They are entirely appropriate questions for the site, just not ones that I'm very good at answering.

In the end, I decided that what most concerns me is 'the loss of the sense of timeliness'. And the single change I would make would be to 'cancel first world debt'.

I didn't notice until afterwards, but these answers pinpoint two of the three things I would like to write about, at that distant period in my life when I finally have the time to write something more coherent than a blog. They are also connected: the effect of being in debt shapes your experience of and relationship to time. And, since the cultural and economic shifts of the 1960s, debt has become the primary mechanism of social control that keeps us bound to our untimely way of living. But that's a long story...

What prompted me to blog about this was that, having been thinking about the cancellation of debt, I stumbled across this article (via Ran):

Laws that periodically canceled debts, freed Israelite debt-servants, and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations dating from 2400 to 1600 BCE leave no doubt that these edicts were implemented. During the Babylonian period they grew more elaborate and detailed, capped by Ammisaduqa’s Edict of 1646 BCE. Now that these edicts are understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other-worldly ideals; they take their place in a 2,000-year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of access to self-support on the land...

Rome was the first society not to cancel its debts. And we all know what happened to it. Classical historians such as Plutarch, Livy, and Diodorus attributed Rome’s decline and fall to the fact that creditors got the entire economy in their debt, expropriated the land and public domain, and strangled the economy.

The author is Michael Hudson, an economist at the University of Missouri, and there's a lot more on his website. I'm very glad to have found it, because I've wondered for a long time whether the Jubilee laws of the Old Testament were more than wishful thinking, and - despite coming from a family of theologians - noone was able to tell me.


Dan Aktivix said...

I'm of two minds about debt, in the same way I am about work. Both may make us able to do things we otherwise couldn't. Both might equally make us pseudo-slaves. Both are sweetness and light from the mouths of economists: your a toilet cleaner because of comparative advantage, and you have debt because you must borrow to invest, and invest to grow (as a person, a nation.)

I came across the phrase 'indentured consumption' recently in, well, it must have been the Guardian! I love it when two words capture an idea so well. A google search gives this link. There's more to be spoken about this...

Dan Aktivix said...

I mean 'you're'. Gawd, what awful grammar.

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks for the link - "indentured consumption" is a great term. There's more to be spoken, indeed! (And I still owe you that email about Berger...)

What particularly interests me about debt is the way that the moral codes around it changed during the 20th century. Within two generations, in British working class culture, personal debt was transformed from a cause for shame into a necessity. This volte face was arguably more dramatic than the parallel shift in sexual mores. Both shifts involve an inversion of the economics of desire.

There's so much more to be said about this! And the further you go with it, the more aspects of recent history it sheds light on.

As for cancelling first world debt, I've no idea what the consequences would be, but it would be interesting as hell to see! I do have a sense that education systems and the debt culture combine insidiously to ensure that by the time most people begin to have doubts about the picture of the world they've been given, the cost of paying attention to those doubts has become disconcertingly high. (The literal meaning of mortgage is 'grip of death'.)

Alberto said...

Great post Dougald! I initially thought the "first world debt" in your UnLtdWorld profile was a typo, so this piece was filled with some very very interesting and provoking thoughts!! Great link too!

Dougald Hine said...

Glad you liked the post, Alberto! I'm enjoying playing around with UnLtd World and look forward to seeing how it develops.

Funny that you thought it might have been a typo - that serves me right for trying to be clever.

Actually, I seem to spend my life being mistaken for a typo. It's amazing how often people entering data assume that I've misspelt my own name and helpfully correct it to "DOUGLAS". And a TV presenter once addressed me as "DOUG, LAD" all the way through an interview, which I thought was a little over-familiar!

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