Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, by Margaret Atwood (2008)

I recently had the opportunity to see Atwood speak while on a book tour, and was struck by just how funny and current she remains. That experience made me wonder what works of hers remained at the library for me to discover, which led me to find this short volume which collects Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lecture, essentially a brief cultural history of debt as a social concept. I must admit that I generally have little patience for cultural studies as a field, but I’ll make an exception for someone as brilliant, witty, and well-read as Atwood. It’s not that I think the idea of tracing the development of a cultural construct through time in order to better understand its use in the present day is a waste of time in and of itself, but I find the world historical importance of the details of this process are rarely as interesting as their authors think. (Case in point: a friend of a friend won a grant to do a master’s thesis on the cultural history of the bikini wax, but switched topics to write about the cultural history of period sex instead. I remain unconvinced that this is worth spending three years of one’s life researching.) Recurring themes: if we are so keen to judge debtors, then why not also their creditors, without whom the former could not have gotten themselves into such difficulty? Is it worth returning to the Biblical concept of jubilee (debt forgiveness) to help break cycles of poverty and systemic, institutionalized injustice? Would doing so help enable our society to begin to pay down its collective, looming environmental debt, which Mother Nature is likely to start calling due in short order? At any rate, worth reading if you find Atwood or her subject of interest. I’ll leave you with an excerpt, because Atwood is just too clever a writer for me to resist doing so. Trust me, it’s all this good.

"Debt is the new fat", someone said recently. Which led me to reflect that, not so long ago, fat was the new cigarette-smoking, and before that, cigarette-smoking was the new alcohol-drinking, and before that alcohol-drinking was the new whoremongering. And whoremongering is the new debt; and so we go in circles. What all these things have in common is that at one time or another each has been considered the very worst sin of all but has then gone through a period of being thought, if not totally harmless, at least fashionable. I left out hallucinogenic drugs, though they fit in there too. We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful. There are even debt TV shows, which have a familiar religious-revival ring to them. There are accounts of shopaholic binges during which you don't know what came over you and everything was a blur, with tearful confessions by those who've spent themselves into quivering insomniac jellies of hopeless indebtedness, and have resorted to lying, cheating, stealing, and kiting cheques between bank accounts as a result. There are testimonials by families and loved ones whose lives have been destroyed by the debtor's harmful behaviour. There are compassionate but severe admonitions by the television host, who here plays the part of priest or revivalist. There's a moment of seeing the light, followed by repentance and a promise never to do it again. There's a penance imposed - snip, snip go the scissors on the credit cards - followed by a strict curb-on-spending regimen; and finally, if all goes well, the debts are paid down, the sins are forgiven, absolution is granted, and a new day dawns, in which a sadder but more solvent man you rise the morrow morn. Once upon a time, people took the utmost precautions to avoid going into debt in the first place. There were various once-upon-a-times - as I've said, debt goes in and out of fashion, and today's admired free-spending gentleman is tomorrow's despised deadbeat. But the time I have in mind was the Great Depression, which my parents lived through as a young married couple. My mother had four envelopes, into which she put the money from my father's paycheque every month. ... This was called "living within your means", and judging from the debt TV shows, it's a lost art.