The cost of conflict; trying to understand war and debt

Part of me, maybe because I am an artist  and debtor and have self judgements around both of these, feels unqualified to talk about things which are made of the hard, ‘patriarchal’ stuff of economics and  war combined.  This is I think is because I feel I don’t have the language or understanding of economics or international conflict to be credible, despite  having experienced and read quite a lot on the subject of debt and developed a recent installation inspired by ideas of conflict, Child’s Play, on display at  IWMN.

However, from reading and observing and sensing what is going on at the moment, talking to contributors, and the influx of messages and contributions to The Book of Debts in the wake of my interview with the Guardian this week on my own personal experience of debt, and because I have placed a Book of Debts in the Imperial War Museum a part of the Asia Triennial Manchester on the theme of conflict and compassion , I have a number of reflections/ questions which I feel compelled to make /pose .  Not making them would feel like a missed opportunity. And as an artist it is my role to ask questions, which I am sure may promote further questions back – at least I hope so.

I have been thinking and reading  about the relationship between debt and war, trying to get my head around it and this is what I learnt so far. It has often been said that banks – and nowadays corporate powers –  are  the driving force behind war and that war is the most efficient and profitable way of creating debt, fast. As we now know that banks are built on creating money from nothing (since the bank of England admitted it earlier this year, as David Graeber writes in this article ), i.e loans are created first and electronic currency to finance them second, this leaves them in the unique position of being able to create the means to create quick entry into conflicts that might not otherwise be possible. Which may explain why there are so many wars all going on concurrently in the middle of a global financial crisis?

Financing wars is VERY expensive (the US war in Iraq,  initial cost $1.7 trillion, will have cost around $6 trillion over the next four decades, counting the interest!) and the scope for continuing them has been regularly extended by borrowing. So wars have been a huge – and regular – way for banks to create the finance for monarchs and governments who want to try to expand their empires, colonies and spheres of enforced influence. This includes financing what often seem to be revolutions but turn out to be regime changes with devastating strings attached. There also the issue public bonds, but that is another story (which is so clothed in esoteric language I defy anyone not versed in business/economics to understand them, but then that is the idea….you can’t question what you can’t understand – hence the small print on loan agreements.. see the vocabularly used in this article)

War is also good for banks and corporate powers because a lot of material, equipment, buildings and infrastructure get destroyed in war. So countries go into massive debt to finance war, and then borrow a load more to rebuild what they just destroyed. Utterly surreal and devastating on a human level. But hey, great for business (ask George Bush).

The emergence of the big central banks has kept this age old tradition going. Specifically, the big banks or allied powers (ie the US to the Allies in WW1) loan money to governments and charge interest for the loans. With most loans there is a fixed term. And often , in consumer terms if a debt has not been paid within a certain time frame, i.e 6 years, it is written off. However, apparently war loans are perpetual, i.e there is no pay-by date and so we still have loans dating right back to the Crimean war, the Irish Potato Famine etc,

In the UK at the moment, in this time of ‘austerity’ (which, based on the fact that banks control the creation of money and money is made up by them rather than them being custodians of anything that actually exists in real time and space, is unnecessary and just creating massive and rapid inequality)  why does George Osborne apparently feels that we can now afford to pay our World War One loan off, the first payment in 67 years  of 218 m towards a 2bn debt ?

Burning The Books, Birmingham, 2014. Photo: Katja Ogrin

Burning The Books, Birmingham, 2014. Photo: Katja Ogrin

In many holy books, there was the idea of a Jubilee, a periodic writing –off of debts and freeing of slaves – every 7 years in the bible and every 50 years in the Torah. (one of my references for this project). This is the basis of campaigns to erase toxic and unjust debt by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, i.e  Argentina’s  current pursual by vulture funds (based on loans taken out by an previous regime to finance the junta), Pakistan’s crippling debt burden to the west which has resulted in the death of thousands of the poorest citizens,  would never be in a position to contemplate this kind of voluntary repayment. JDC are working on these issues, and a general Jubilee for Justice, which is being largely ignored by the political elites.

Why pay this war loan off now? Is this a PR move  to impress our US creditors to whom we owe a number of political favours ? Why are we repaying  debt incurred to finance a world war 100 years ago, prioritised over keeping the NHS healthy or meeting the basic needs of those who are falling into the cost of living gaps, barely affording to meet ends meet without going into massive debt themselves? Why hasn’t a jubilee been applied to this debt – or to all war debts , come to it?  Why are war loans ‘perpetual’ and not time-limited?? Who is profiting from the payback of this debt and  who is this debt really to? Why is it being packaged as being ‘value for money’ (apparently because there is a period of low interest at the moment,) and framed as a great opportunity ?

This kind of questioning is not only applicable to retrospective debt – whether war loans or other-  but also to our current global debt situation, Charles Eisenstein writes:

‘It is said that our children and grandchildren will be paying out these bailout and stimulus debts, but they could also simply be declared into non-existence. They are only as real as the story we agree on that contains them. Our grandchildren will pay them only if the story, the system of meanings that defines those debts still exist. ‘  (Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein)

This story, this system of meanings we are occupying at the moment, needs to and is being seriously questioned and will be transformed. There are plenty of thinkers /writers/activists/economists out there who have been doing this for a while and now this is becoming more visible. Among them I have met / noted  Brett Scott, Charles Eisenstein, Positive Money, New Economics Foundation, Ann Pettifor, (and all the speakers at the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s Life Before Debt Conference this Spring ).

Also , this Thursday 20th November, is the first time since 1844 that Parliament is debating the way that money is created  and although one wouldn’t expect the banks to hand over the power to control the way money is generated to a democratic body overnight,(here you go, we’ve had enough!)  it is a good sign that at least there is a high profile dialogue happening about it (lets hope it gets coverage..) , out of the alternative sphere of activism. I like that it is taking place on the same day we are burning the Book of Debts! And the same week as Restorative Justice Week, something I would like to have had a closer look at during this time, in terms of its relationship to the other theme of compassion, the antidote to conflict. Maybe that’s for the next project.

I am excited that I have 6 people reciting The Book of Debts VIII alongside me on Thursday and excited to say  that I will also be speaking about the project on Woman’s Hour, Radio 4 this Friday morning November 21st, when Book IX opens online .

 

Partially reposted from my AN blog ‘Child’s Play': Conflict and Compassion at Asia Triennial Manchester

 

 

 

 

The Book of Debts Image/Video Gallery 2011-14

Watch Burning The Books – selected clips on Vimeo here.